November 14, 2016

Time to get science right

Despite some promising signs, all is not well in the research community.

Funding from the three granting councils is still lower than it was a decade ago, approval of federal research grant applications has dropped to as low as 13 per cent, laboratories are increasingly dependent on low-paid students, and staffing at the prestigious National Research Council is 25 per cent lower than it was just a few short years ago.

In other words, the legacy of 10 years of cuts by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government continues to be felt. And despite a boost in basic research funding in last year’s budget, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have a long way to go to make up for lost ground.

“Funding for basic research remains a key issue,” said David Robinson, executive director of CAUT, whose Get Science Right campaign in 2015 galvinated interest in fundamental research in the run-up to the October election of the Trudeau government.

“At the very minimum,” Robinson said, “we need to get back to 2007–2008 levels of funding for the granting councils.”

The numbers tell the tale. While the last budget included $95 million in new cash for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the total doled out by the three is still about 4 per cent less, when adjusted for inflation, than a decade ago.

The funding drop at SSHRC, whose share of the pie is smallest, is most dramatic — close to 11 per cent in real terms — while CIHR’s budget dropped 6 per cent. At NSERC, the reduction was 1.5 per cent.

Even at the rate the Liberal government is now reinvesting in the granting councils, it will take at least until 2019 for funding to return to pre-Harper levels. And the effect will be blunted by the substantial increase since 2007 in the cost of research equipment and materials, most of which is imported from the United States at a high exchange rate.

More important, when the government puts big money into science research — like the $900 million the Liberals doled out in September through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund — it often doesn’t translate into change for the vast
majority of researchers. That $900 million, for instance, was shared among only 13 post-secondary institutions and just a few dozen researchers.

For most researchers, grant money is getting harder to obtain. “Success rates” — that is, the percentage of grant applications that receive funding — are much lower than they were a decade ago. At SSHRC, the rate is 20 per cent, or half what it was in 2006. At CIHR, only 13 per cent of the scientists applying for money are successful, a decline in success rate of 26 percentage points. At NSERC, the success rate has dropped from 72 per cent to 65 per cent.

To address these and other issues, the Trudeau government announced in June that it had tasked an independent panel with reviewing federal support for fundamental science. The review includes the three granting councils, along with certain federally funded organizations such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation. The nine-member expert panel, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, is expected to report its findings to Science Minister Kirsty Duncan by the end of this year.

The review has left the scientific community with mixed feelings. Although a study of basic science is welcome, some say that unless the grants process is dramatically changed, researchers will continue to spend far too much time applying for federal aid. And without substantial budget increases at the operational level — in infrastructure assets like laboratories — it’ll be money wasted.

On the floor of his cluttered office at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, McGill neuroscience professor and researcher Daniel Guitton has boxes filled with countless science reviews past. The new Liberal panel doesn’t impress him.

“It seems to me we just keep going around in circles,” Guitton says. “What’s missing in this whole consideration of fundamental research is its importance for the health of universities. We don’t put enough value on that.”

Guitton says the focus should be on supporting properly functioning labs, and on ensuring researchers are not wasting effort on multiple grant applications.

Katalin Szaszi agrees. She’s a prominent cell biologist and physiologist who specializes in kidney research at the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Recruited from Hungary, she benefited a de­cade ago from one of the last big CIHR senior-research fellowships: two years of post-doctoral funding and two years of “new investigator” salary support.

However, as her small lab (one technician, two students) was established and starting to produce results, she quickly learned how wearying the grant application process could be. No longer could she operate on one big grant; she had to apply for several at a time, and apply again and again — as many as six times — before landing one. And then she had to wait months for the first cheque.

“I think I’m spending at least half my time writing or reviewing grants,” says Szaszi, who also works at the University of Toronto’s department of surgery. “That’s too much. And every time you’re rejected, it sets you back emotionally. The cutoff is so low: 16, 17 per cent. There are so many good grant applications out there, it becomes a little random whether you’re funded or not. You have to develop a little resilience; you even have to be a little bit crazy. It’s not an ideal situation.”

When money does come in, it’s never enough. In a good year, Szaszi would receive $150,000; in a bad year, $70,000 — barely enough to pay her technician. Did that mean a lot of research didn’t get done? “Definitely,” she says. As a result, her lab has been “quite slow” versus labs in other countries, and “by the time I manage to realize my ideas, someone else in the world has done it,” she adds.

She says underfunding a lab is a waste of money. “If the lab doesn’t have funding issues, it will produce good research. If it has funding issues, the money will be spent to apply for further grants. It’s a bit of a Catch-22.”

Another big problem, researchers say, is an over-reliance on inadequately supervised student labour.

“Low funding levels mean that labs have to put much more emphasis on hiring students, who are the least paid in the system, the slaves of the system,” says Szaszi. “We’re giving this really complicated enterprise of doing research to those with the least experience.”

She says without adequate staff to instruct them, the qua-lity of the students’ training — one of the goals of hiring them in the first place — suffers. “They are supposed to be learning by doing the research, but there are not enough hands-on experienced people in the lab to learn from. It’s a problem of balance. It’s really not good for anyone.”

Another concern is the integrity and independence of basic “discovery” research.

Under the Conservative government, in return for grants, scientists had to increasingly prove their research had commercial or industrial potential — “targeted research” focused on commercialization.

“What that leads to is lying,” says Guitton. “When they’re forced into a corner, scientists will always find a way to write a story about the potential applications of what they do.”

He says fundamental research, by definition, has “no mea-surable outcome. Most major discoveries have arisen via unexpected discoveries.”

Guitton notes that transistors, for example, were develop-ed from research into solid-state physics. Optogenetic imaging was inspired by the luminescence of sea anemones. Web servers were improved by analyzing the foraging patterns of bees.

How could the next 10 years be better?

“I would love for the prestige of basic science to come back — that’s what would really make me happy,” says Szaszi. “I can take the grant writing if the recognition comes back that even if we don’t immediately see what the research is good for, it can still be valuable. A longer-term attitude is what we need."