In his first press conference, President Joe Biden committed to tripling the percentage of gross domestic product dedicated to pure research and investments in science. In late March, U.S. Congress introduced a bill in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support that would double the budget of the National Science Foundation from the current $8.5 billion to $18.3 billion in 2026. The bill proposes a new directorate entitled “Science and Engineering Solutions” and the number of prestigious graduate research fellowships would rise from 2,000 to 3,000 per year. One House member expressed the rationale as follows, “researchers and students are inspired by finding solutions, whether they be to scientific or societal challenges. In this bill, we seek to inspire.”
Canadians are very aware of the miracle of vaccines that has provided the exit strategy from the pandemic and a pathway to a recovery that must be propelled by the upcoming federal budget. What is less well known is that Canada’s scientists and entrepreneurs made significant contributions to the research that enabled both the mRNA and adenovirus-based vaccines and the necessary liposome carriers. These Canadian scientific innovations stem from long-term investments over many decades in Canada’s research councils and their support for fundamental research and scholarship. The monetary return on this investment is quite extraordinary considering the low costs of the research (millions over decades) compared with the enormous savings (many billions) from shortening the pandemic by a year or more, ending CERB and other support payments. The end of the pandemic will permit a resurgence of the economy and, of course, result in the dramatic reduction of mortality and morbidity that will follow the vaccination rollout.
Canada can position itself towards a robust economic recovery by investments in human capital and by attending to the elements valued by Canadian society. This is highlighted in a recent interview with Mark Carney in which the former governor of the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England emphasizes our commitments to climate change and to the health of Canadians. Government investments can spur responses from the private sector that consider the quality of life that all Canadians cherish. Such public investments and private sector innovations will lead to a flourishing economy in a reset and reinvigorated future for Canada.
Policies that attend to human capital may avert crises that are certain to occur in the absence of proper planning. Such disasters include pandemics, climate change and the ongoing responsibilities to treat, mitigate and prevent cancer, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases and mental illness. We must motivate, train and support the scientists who decipher the causes and mechanisms behind these diseases and thereby create technological innovations for new means of treatment and prevention.
We have noted that foundational and continuing investments in basic research led to the vaccines for polio in the past and for COVID-19 today. The innovation of tissue culture techniques led to vaccines for polio and research on mRNA and adenoviruses enabled COVID-19 vaccines with contributions from talented Canadian researchers supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.
However, the future that is entirely possible cannot happen with Canada’s current expenditures on science that are by far the lowest in the G7. Over the decades, the CIHR budget has dropped from approximately 10 percent to now barely two percent of the U.S. NIH budget.
Since 2013, there have been no improvements in grant success at CIHR where the success rate has consistently been about 15 percent. The most recent budget allocated to operating grants for CIHR will not alleviate the bleak reality of uncompetitive funding even for the few investigators who actually receive a grant. The most recent reveals results identical to those since 2013.
Regrettably, CIHR has eliminated its only program that awarded internationally competitive operating grants. This puts Canada at risk that the seeds of Canadian discoveries will become innovative new technologies developed elsewhere. Furthermore, those talented scientists who work in Canada and others newly trained here may move to attractive laboratories and funding south of the border and Asia.
Canada cannot and should not abandon the talent that we need for the innovative discoveries technologies that can support and lead our economic and social recovery. The importance of a science-based economic recovery is recognized widely and recent history provides a salient lesson.
We stress that a substantial and aspirational increase in budgets to the three research councils, in addition to government policies that spur entrepreneurship and innovation, will permit us to retain and recruit the new generation of talent, including women, who will be necessary to meet the challenges of the post-pandemic recovery. Transformative change is most effectively introduced in the aftermath to a crisis. This is the time to act courageously for Canada!
Abraham Fuks is a professor of medicine and former dean of medicine at McGill University. John Bergeron is the Robert Reford Professor Emeritus, former chair of anatomy and cell biology and professor of medicine at McGill. Nahum Sonenberg is the Gilman Cheney Professor of Biochemistry at McGill.