Funding Science in Canada – Status and Emerging Alternatives

Funding Science in Canada – Status and Emerging Alternatives

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By: Cricia Rinchon and Anna Badner

Science is expensive. Considering the significant cost of laboratory equipment, experiment materials, qualified personnel, and publishing fees, research comes at a high price. Further, the traditional academic funding model is a highly competitive and time-consuming process. Investigators are required to submit tedious applications and research proposals to granting agencies with increasingly restricted funds. For this reason, the IMS Magazine sought to review the current state of national science funding in Canada, its limitations, and the growing number of alternative funding sources.

On April 10th, 2017, the Federal Science Panel released their Review of Fundamental Science in Canada. Led by Dr. David Naylor, former president of the University of Toronto, the review was nicknamed the “Naylor Report” and highlighted shortcomings in the present national research funding model. Annually, the Canadian government spends more than $10 billion on science and technology.1 More than half of this is directed towards intramural research, which includes federal labs and scientists across multiple departments and agencies, including the National Research Council of Canada. In contrast, the Naylor Report focused on extramural research, which includes the work conducted at universities, hospitals, and institutes.

Each year, $5.2 billion of extramural funds are split up across grants and scholarships (through NSERC, CIHR, SSHC), tri-council programs (Canada Research Chairs, Canada First Research Excellence Fund, Networks of Centres of Excellence), and contribution agreements (e.g. Brain Canada, the Stem Cell Network, and Mitacs).2 The Federal Science Panel was primarily concerned with Canada’s research competitiveness, which has progressively eroded in the past decade. Gross domestic product (GDP) is a measure of the market value of all final goods and services produced in a quarterly or yearly period and is commonly used to determine the economic performance of a whole country or region. The percentage of GDP spent on research and development from all sources is known as the Gross Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD). Canada’s GERD has been slowly declining over the last 15 years in comparison with Group of Seven (G7) nations.2

At the university level, faculty have felt this decline through the gradual reduction in CIHR grant success rates.3 For this reason, part of the Federal Science Panel’s proposed solution is a cumulative increase of base-funding for the tri-agencies (CIHR, NSERC, and SSRC) from $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion per year over a four year ramp-up period. Considering inflation, this may not sound like much; unfortunately, that is true. Contrary to popular belief, the Government of Canada is not the primary source of funding for academic research. Annual spending on research and development performed by institutions of higher education is referred to as HERD (Higher Education Expenditure on Research and Development). Internationally, Canada’s HERD intensity is the highest relative to the other G7 nations; however, it is important to note that HERD reflects where research is conducted, not where the funding came from. Notably, the Canadian government contributes less than 25% of that total.2 So, where does the rest of this money come from? Since 2015, almost 50% of HERD was funded by universities and colleges subsidizing the national research effort.2 Moreover, the remaining approximate quarter came from other funding sources including: contract research and/or matching from business (7.2%), grants from the non-profit sector (9.7%), provincial government research grants (8.9%), and foreign grants and awards (0.8%). More importantly, in the last decade, this extramural support has shifted dramatically, increasing emphasis on applied and commercializable research.2 Although this movement encourages collaborations and support from industry, as discussed below, it may simultaneously deter funding from fundamental basic research—the work without any obvious translational goals.

With a focus on research commercialization, MaRS Innovation (MI) was established by the Government of Canada as a Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research.4 MI helps to commercialize medical research and other technologies with the support of local private enterprises. By operating as a business incubator, MI provides new and startup companies with services ranging from management and training, to funding and office space. It works with academia, industry, venture capitalists, angel investors, and the government. Since its inception, MI struggled to transform research inventions into successful startups and innovative technologies; however, that changed in 2008, when the University of Toronto (U of T), its affiliated research institutions, and other academic research institutions joined forces to group their collective intellectual property into a single commercialization platform.4 Since then, MI has created 60 companies within various sectors including medical diagnostics, devices, and therapeutics.4 An important commercialization collaboration of MI is the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), which is also funded by the Government of Canada. CCRM is a not-for-profit consortium specifically tailored to assist with the production and translation of gene, as well as cellular based, therapies. In 2015, the federal government announced a $114 million grant over seven years to propel U of T as one of the world’s leading centres for the design and manufacturing of cells, tissues, and organs to treat degenerative disease.5 Considering the distinct challenges of regenerative medicine technologies, CCRM similarly provides business and regulatory expertise in addition to technical services. The industry relationships, as well as collaborative agreements, drive financial support for further foundational research and business development.

 Alongside the effort to commercialize science, online crowdfunding campaigns have also come to light as a novel and unconventional method of securing finances for research. This approach, which has shown substantial promise in generating investment for start-ups, allows researchers to request small sums of money from numerous individuals through internet based platforms.6 By directly engaging financiers, crowdfunding is thought to democratize the allocation of research resources, reducing the institutional and investigator bias present within traditional granting agencies.7 Further, as these campaigns allow scientists to involve people outside of academia, they also present a source of public outreach, increasing science interest, awareness, and understanding.8 To date, the popular research funding platform Experiment (https://experiment.com) has 702 funded projects, 38,582 backers, and about $7,390,190 pledged. Importantly, Experiment states that their funded projects have led to at least 20 publications in scientific journals and numerous conference proceedings, albeit the quality and impact factors are not mentioned. Nevertheless, as with industry-relevant research, translational science is also more likely to appeal to the public and secure funds, thereby discouraging support for the important curiosity-driven fundamental studies.

It is clear that the Canadian research ecosystem is changing. A growing amount of financial resources are being provided through commercialization initiatives, industrial relationships, and even through online public engagement. While encouraging, this reshaped financial landscape also comes with unique limitations. Research accountability, allocation equity, and quality control are just a few of the emerging ethical considerations. Moreover, these increasing incentives for science translation and commercialization are reducing the appreciation of basic mechanistic exploration. For this reason, moving forward, it will be especially important to remember that basic fundamental discoveries have led us to the application of science. Basic studies can complement or even drive future translation and commercialization. Ultimately, if Canada is to continue its progress as an active contributor to science, diverse work will need funding, thus requiring a coordinated effort on the part of the public, government, industry, and academia.

 

References:

  1. Semeniuk I. Massive review of federal science funding reveals risks to younger researchers. The Globe and Mail [Internet]. 2017 [cited 15 June 2017];. Available from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/review-calls-for-new-entity-to-oversee-federal-science-funding/article34650444/
  2. Naylor DC, Birgeneau RJ, Crago M, Lazardis M, Malacrida C, McDonald AB, et al. Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research. Available from: http://www.sciencereview.ca/eic/site/059.nsf/vwapj/ScienceReview_April2017.pdf [Accessed 6th June, 2015].
  3. Government of Canada. Historical Success Rates in CIHR Open Grant Competitions. Available from: http://open.canada.ca/data/en/dataset/af589454-caf5-4b6f-86ed-c871567c61de [Accessed 6th June, 2015].
  4. http://www.nce-rce.gc.ca/NetworksCentres-CentresReseaux/ByBrogram-ParProgramme_eng.asp [Accessed 6th June, 2015].
  5. Government of Canada. MaRS Innovation – MI. Available from: http://marsinnovation.com/2015/07/federal-government-awards-the-university-of-toronto-114-million-regenerative-medicine-grant/ [Accessed 6th June, 2015].
  6. Vachelard J, Gambarra-Soares T, Augustini G, Riul P, Maracaja-Coutinho V. A Guide to Scientific Crowdfunding. PLoS Biol. 2016 Feb 17;14(2):e1002373
  7. Benderly BL. Going Online for Research Funding. Science. 2013 Jun. Available from: http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2013/06/going-online-research-funding [Accessed 4th June, 2015].
  8. Byrnes JE, Ranganathan J, Walker BL, Faulkes Z. To Crowdfund Research, Scientists Must Build an Audience for Their Work. PLoS One. 2014 Dec 10;9(12):e110329.