Can Canada ‘win gold’ in Medical Research?

By: Stéphane Angers and Raymond Reilly

With the recent closing of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the anticipated start of the Paralympic Winter Games fresh in our minds, we are inspired by the power of striving for excellence in the human endeavour. Audiences around the world have been transfixed, watching this happen before their eyes. It is clear that such excellence can only be achieved through the intense competition between the athletes on display.   

At its core, medical research is also about striving for excellence. It is also driven by intense international competition. For the last few months, scientists across the country have been waiting anxiously for the delivery of Canada’s federal budget that would indicate whether or not our scientists would be placed on the fast track to be medalists in the international competition of medical discovery. On February 27, Finance Minister Bill Morneau delivered his third federal budget in the House of Commons. Did it give us what we need to win gold?

Yes, for the most part.

In response to the report delivered by Canada’s Fundamental Science Review (often referred to as the “Naylor Report” as it was led by former U of T president David Naylor) the budget provides $925 million in new funding for investigator-led research through Canada’s three federal research councils over the next five years. Although this commitment falls short of what the Naylor Report identified as a necessary amount, we have seen immediate and widespread praise – and expressions of relief – from the scientific community. Why is that?  

Dollars aside, the new budget demonstrates that the federal government has taken to heart the most important recommendation of the Naylor Report: to correct the imbalance created in the previous decade when investments favoured “priority-driven” over investigator-led research. While that might sound reasonable at first, the scientific community has been highly critical of this approach, pointing out the impossibility of predicting which research will have the biggest impact too far in advance. What we needed was a commitment from the federal government to invest in foundational research and to nurture the development of our scientists and the gold medal-calibre discoveries for which we strive.     

As scientists, our chances of achieving excellence are greatly increased when the government of the day understands the need to support a broad range of research, fueled by the ideas of its scientists across the country. It is this much-needed shift that we welcome, because it is the most important step in allowing Canadian-led research to flourish and push the boundaries of possibility.

Stéphane Angers is associate dean of research at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy

Raymond Reilly is a professor and director of the Centre for Pharmaceutical Oncology at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy