Sunday, February 01, 2009

Market Driven Science in Crisis?

Recent news of the 2009 Canadian Budget and the "missing" Genome Canada funding has created a minor media frenzy. Several Ontario scientists, my colleagues, friends and mentors, are being paraded by the news organizations as examples of how Genome Canada has created international leadership in cancer genomics and biodiversity research. Good for them, but I also I feel badly for them, for I know exactly what kind of career hit follows this kind of funding crisis.

While it is certain that many Genome Canada funded scientists have become international leaders in their fields, one problem is that Genome Canada has no long-term strategy to fund these projects. Industry partnered three-year projects with no provision for renewal are the staple of Genome Canada's co-funding strategy.

Expectations of commercial spin-offs and a market-driven afterlife is the fairy-tale ending for Genome Canada's approach to science. Yet the horizon for success in life sciences research can be longer than a decade. So, sadly, when a researcher becomes an international leader, Genome Canada has no strategy to keep them in that position, economic downturn or not.

Genome Canada is a market-driven organization. Perhaps it is reasonable to expect that co-funding - the money contributed by industry to the Genome Canada funding scheme - will simply dry up during this recession. By its own design, Genome Canada cannot hand out its money without co-funders. If Genome Canada has no hope of attracting co-funding this year, then this budget may in fact (gasp) be a reasonable one.

In my opinion, it is better to have the money spent updating college and university laboratories than sitting in Genome Canada's account waiting for co-funders to emerge from recession.

So how will the hit to Genome Canada affect the Brain Drain? In my own experience, Canadian universities and federal research agencies have not kept up with the international salaries paid to top-notch researchers. When research funding and infrastructure is plenty, scientists trade-off the benefits against the lower salary. Scientists tend to stay put if they have Genome Canada funding, OR new lab and infrastructure paid for by the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

CFI did get funding this year, and this will benefit far more scientists than the same funds in Genome Canada. In the past decade, the Brain Drain of top-paid researchers has been a slow drip. No doubt a few more scientists will retreat overseas and across borders, as I have, on the double justification of better salary and better research funds. But I predict these will be few, as CFI and many good new graduate students selecting academia over the workforce, will keep these researchers content.

I caution that it is up to the employers, universities, colleges and federal agencies to keep up with the price of leading scientific talent. Brain Drain in the coming years will be more squarely blamed on the scientists salary gap, rather than on large-scale funding opportunities enjoyed by the select few.

Another upside for Canadian scientists is that the paperwork for science funding can stand to be diminished, giving time back to the researchers. Canadian scientists will benefit from long needed consolidations in funding applications, programs and delivery that are being driven by the economics of the 2009 Budget. The time has come for a corrective contraction to Canadian science funding bloat, after which the nation will be much better positioned for a return to growth and merit-driven, rather than market-driven research.

And, after a big outburst of disbelief in their own misfortune from the 2009 Budget, Genome Canada has settled down. Now they are saying this budget is good for Canadian Science. They may just be right - better spent by CFI than sit in their bank account for the duration of the recession.