Shiny, happy, oblivious science

by Dr. Jim R. Woodgett

The government of Canada released a budget on April 19th, 2021, the first for two years. It was, as anticipated, a high spending, deficit projecting budget that clears the ground for pandemic recovery with its centre piece being a national childcare plan (the best part, by far). Given the exemplary role that science has contributed to managing and emerging from the pandemic, hopes were high for some bold scientific investments. Indeed, among a plethora of promises that covered the gamut, that was the rhetoric of the budget document with some $2.2 billion in new money for life sciences over 7 years. But the devil is always in the details and they were buried in over 700 pages of the document. So let’s cut through the declarative statements and get to the bones of the actual investments in science.

  1. $500 million over 4 years for the Canada Foundation for Innovation — sounds good but in Budget 2018 the CFI budget was supposed to be set up for a $462 million annualized budget by 2022–23 (page 93 of the Budget 2018 Budget). This investment is therefore substantially less than anticipated for the promised status quo.
  2. $400 million over 6 years for a “pan-Canadian genomics strategy” part of which ($210 million) is to fund Genome Canada. This is a bit of a head scratcher — although the use of the word “strategy” is hopeful. As an aside, the tricouncils fund more “genomics” research than Genome Canada (which I ascribe to the success of Genome Canada in mainstreaming genomics — as intended).
  3. $250 million over 3 years to CIHR to administer a clinical trials fund. No idea how this will work —and that’s according to CIHR staff since they have yet to negotiate with the Treasury Board.
  4. $250 million over 4 years for a new tricouncil “biomedical research fund”. F*** knows what that means; will come back to it.
  5. $443.8 million over 10 years for an AI strategy (includes $210.2 million for CIFAR). There’s that word “strategy” again.
  6. Various bespoke amounts for specific niches of research (includes $30 million over 2 years for pediatric cancer, $20 million over 5 years for a National Institute for Women’s Health Research, $45 million over 3 years for the Stem Cell Network and a basket of other smaller initiatives.

There’s also money for development of in-country capacity to produce vaccines as, for some unforeseeable reason, it was a tiny mistake to sell off and shut down that sector. Who knew?

Impressive, eh? So impressive that in their subsequent gushing comments after the release of the budget, various agencies and bodies representing science FORGOT TO NOTICE THERE ISN’T A RED CENT FOR THE BASE BUDGET OF THE TRICOUNCILS.

To be fair to the Liberal government, this isn’t the first time they’ve had a brain burp over the tricouncil base budget. They did it in Budget 2017. That had the effect of making the 2018 budget look far more generous, because of the prior neglect. This can be seen in the budget projections released by CIHR after the 2018 budget (the current Liberal government was first elected in late 2015).

The slope of this curve is rather linear suggesting governments aren’t as interested in supporting science as they might claim. Chart from CIHR.

Note the big fat “0” in 2017. Also, note the base budget increase of 0.0000 dollars in FY2022 (you are here). The graph above is the increase on a base of about $1 billion/year for CIHR (give or take as there are flow throughs that scarcely leave a skid mark as they swish through the books on Elgin Street). Do the math and this one agency has received an average of about a 1.5% increase each year for the last decade, much of it restricted to ear-marked initiatives. Cost increases have approximated 2.5–3% (forget true biomedical inflation of about 4–5% as calculated by NIH). So the agency is short about $20 million in its base funding this year, from which it needs to pay its staff, operations, and its current and future funding obligations.

Wait a sec, you say, what about the $250 million pots each for clinical and basic science? What about them, exactly? There is no indication yet as to how or what these funds can or will be applied to. They are restricted, as is every new science dollar in the budget (it’s as if the government doesn’t trust the agencies to allocate funds). What goes for CIHR is the same for NSERC and SSHRC. In other words, they are staring at a collective hole of $50 million just to stay afloat. The two $250 million pots are also time-limited and that may mean they must be spent within the allocated time frame. For example (from page 157 of Budget 2021) the clinical trials fund will be spent as follows: $34 million in 2021/2; $97 million in 2022/3; and $119 million in 2023/4 (the yearly breakdown for the biomedical research fund is AWOL). CIHR currently invests about $25–30 million/year in clinical trials (difficult to get the exact data) and this comes primarily from the Project Grant budget envelope. So the new fund represents a significant increase to a level more appropriate for a country like Canada. Investigator initiated trials without pharma sponsorship have always been tough here. If done right, this could relieve the Project Grant competition of that $25–30 million (the annual budget for Projects is around $550 million), albeit only for 3 years. But there are no guarentees.

The biomedical research fund is more difficult to parse. From what I gather, this was something of a surprise to the tricouncils and was perhaps a result of a broken telephone game.

“We desperately need new funding for basic research — look what this has done for the development of RNA vaccines!” says the tricouncil pitchman.

“They desperately need new biomedical research funding for vaccines” hears the policy writer.

But with so little to go on lets at least parse the name of the fund —a new TRICOUNCIL BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH FUND. Those Canadian scientists who’ve been around longer than the iPhone will remember that in late Naughts (around 2009–11) the tricouncils were facing a period of austerity. The Conservative government at the time cut the tricouncil base budgets by 5% and the councils reacted in part like Trump by building walls. If there was a hint of health research in your work, for example you could no longer apply to NSERC or SSHRC. In the former case, this was modified a little to allow research into technologies that might be appied to health, as long as the funds weren’t spent on actual testing on humans. In the case of SSHRC, a cohort of excellent social scientists suddenly found themselves forced to apply to an agency entirely foreign to them that neither had the funding capacity nor the reviewer expertise to fairly adjudicate their proposals. Their ranks were decimated despite some effort by CIHR to accommodate them.

The newly gate-keepered tricouncils became independent islands where ne’er the twain shall meet. This caused obvious problems in a world where science was increasingly interdisciplinary. Some work-arounds were created such as the Collaborative Health Research Projects (CHRP) program that aimed to bring together health researchers and engineers but the budget was always hopelessly inadequate for the application pressure. This fencing off of research domains was noted by the Fundamental Science Review panel that recommended the tricouncil heads actually work together (good grief!) to support collaborative and interactive research — or at least not to get in the way of it. Budget 2018 then created the New Frontiers Research Fund (NFRF) as a separate ring fenced funding intitiative with its own adjudication methods and “Convergence” portal to support interdisciplinary and high risk research. Most recently, the three amigos have created an interdisciplinary review panel process by which applicants can choose to have their applications vetted by a tricouncil populated group instead of the traditional specific council peer review panels. This is a one year pilot but it remains to be seen how this will be managed in an environment of tightening budgets and very distinct cultures built up during the Dark Ages of tricouncil separatism.

It might be noted at this point that the objectives of the interdisciplinary review panel and the existence of NFRF could largely be achieved by lowering the artificial gate-keeping barriers erected in 2010.

But, whatever. We are now in a place where either government or the leadership of the funding agencies have abrogated responsibility for a strong and healthy Canadian research backbone. This should be the primary role of the tricouncils as they are the only entities with sustainable and predictable multi-year budgets that are largely isolated from political whim, malice or forgetfulness. Instead, each year, the councils are slowly weakened and any funding provided is decorated in various shades of fettering. Sometimes these are in the form of new, time-limited tricouncil initiatives that provide a temporary respite or bonanza for certain sub-specialties. More often they are in the form of external entities that must repeatedly lobby for funds and proclaim their extraordinary worth, requiring professional lobbyists and marketing campaigns.

It’s hardly surprising, though, that the neglect of the tricouncil base budget has resulted in the sprouting of numerous off-shoots. The government only has itself to blame for this mess as it is in charge. But this situation has led to a number of concerning outcomes. Science is being increasingly driven by short term thinking; science must be marketable and slick to be granted consideration, rather than be based on true opportunity and need. There is absolutely a role for new initiatives but we are too easily distracted by novelty, charisma and buzz words. There is a real opportunity cost when truly novel discoveries and unexpected observations disappear due to neglect of individual, bright scientists. This state of affairs has largely been avoided in the US where federal science funding is primarily funneled through established institutions (NIH, NSF, NASA, etc.) which may be instructed to develop new initiatives, but must do so within the discipline of an overarching structure that ensures that prioritization of the new does not come at the expense of the existing.

The Fundamental Science Review in 2017 recognized the splintered and uncoordinated state of Canadian science. It recommended committees to coordinate and structures to enhance interaction. What it failed to do with sufficient clarity was to recommend a rebuild of the federal science support mechanisms to represent the modern reality. Perhaps that would have been too easily dismissed or kicked down the road, but it is clear that in the 4 years since the report that the government has lost the plot and has largely[1] returned to quick hits and the instant gratification of short term thinking.

Indeed, if it wanted to really have immediate impact, it could have provided some temporary relief to health charity research, which has been evicerated by the loss of donations during the pandemic. While no one doubts the need for Covid-19 research, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimers, cancer, aging, arthritis, etc. have not gone away and, with the diversion of healthcare resources to ICUs, their delayed treatment will result in a reversal of gains over the past decade. This is why we need a national strategy for scientific research that is not subject to whim and expediency or a couple of buzz words and reinforces the tricouncils as the bedrock of Canadian research efforts. They are less flashy or marketable, but like the uncomplaining and invisible pump that circulates our blood, it is what every other aspect of science in society is built and depends upon.

[1] Exceptions are the 10 year AI strategy and, possibly, whatever is meant by the pan-Canadian genomics strategy.

Dr. Jim Woodgett is a Toronto researcher working on diabetes, stem cells, cancer & neuroscience.

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1 Response to Shiny, happy, oblivious science

  1. Pingback: Canada’s 2021 budget and science | FrogHeart

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