Scientific community challenged to develop clear funding proposal for new funding

Guest Contributor
March 16, 2006

Integrated approach recommended

The research community must coalesce quickly and provide direction for a clear and integrated approach to future funding if it wants to convince the Conservative government that further investments are justified. That's the message being delivered by Dr Wilbert Keon, who recently addressed a dinner in Ottawa for the board of directors of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) as well as the Toronto Association of Academic Health Science Centres.

Keon says the new regime in Ottawa is committed to raising Canada's R&D as a percentage of gross domestic product up to the OECD average of 2.3%. But the research community is a special interest group like any other and must effectively jostle for attention if it wants to be successful in securing new funds. He contends that there's an opportunity to capitalize on Canada's excellent base of research, built up over the past decade by the previous Liberal government. But that opportunity could be constrained unless there's a realignment or consolidation of funding instruments, particularly in the area of health research.

At the CFI dinner, Keon said the Conservatives' election platform pledge of $500 million over five years for the granting councils, while encouraging, was not enough. And with more funding proposals emerging, the message from the research community must be clear, with a single overriding message that's simple to understand.

"You've got to develop a strategy and you've got to be able to read it off the side of a barn when you're going 60 miles per hour, as Trudeau used to say," asserted Keon in an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY. "We all accept that we're living in a knowledge-based economy whether we like it or not. That's globalization, point number one. How do we compete in the knowledge-based economy? By uncovering more new knowledge than anybody else. And how do you get more knowledge than anybody else? Research. Those are the commandments and it's just a matter of filling in the blanks below that philosophy."

Keon, a renowned health surgeon and founder of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, is adamant that Canada has the potential to move up the ranks as a nation with top-flight health research. He says that the country's cancer research effort is world class and that, given the proper strategic positions and enhanced funding, Canada could succeed in several areas.

"We have a superb platform to build on," he says. "It's time the research community sat down and did some navel gazing ... Are we going to continue with a proliferation of new instruments or are we going to concentrate on using the instruments we have, such as the 13 institutes of CIHR, the other granting councils and the CFI, which is a very effective body? CFI provides capital monies and works very closely with CIHR. Obviously, a great effort has to be made to sustain that and improve it."

While head of the Heart Institute, Keon says an insistence on a holistic approach to research funding yielded impressive results. Researchers wishing to seek granting council funds were required to demonstrate how their proposals fit into the strategic priorities of the institute, the Univ of Ottawa and the larger national environment. They also had to identify capital funding to support the research and determine whether the granting council award was enough to cover off all of the researcher's expenses.

"We were highly successful all the time with our applications," says Keon. "I think that philosophy has to permeate the whole country."

Keon was appointed to the Senate in 1990 by former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Since that time, he has been an active and forceful advocate for a vibrant health research enterprise in Canada and was vice-chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology during the last Parliament. Keon was also involved in early planning for the transition from the former Medical Research Council to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Funding for CIHR was originally conceived to be 1% of the cost of health care or approximately $1 billion. But CIHR's need for increased funding has increased, along with the escalation of health care costs that have soared past $120 billion annually.

CIHR's current budget of $700 million accounts for less than 0.6% of health care costs, and even its target of $1 billion by FY07-08 won't bring it to the 1% target.

"Despite the increments (to its budget), it's not gaining much towards the one per cent ... If we had stuck to the one per cent, the government would have a clear target to work with. But we have to keep on insisting on that," says Keon.

If the budgets of other health-related research agencies such as Genome Canada are added to that of CIHR, Canada is getting close to the 1% target. But Keon says there's another target Canada should be aiming for.

"We should aim to pass everybody except America," he says. There has to be a coming together of the scientific community and a consolidation planning (and) the government has to come through with more funding so that our research funding to GDP is better than anybody's except America."

Canada faces many challenges to improving R&D and competitiveness, including the recent spike in revenue from oil and gas. Those revenues have transformed Alberta into a debt-free jurisdiction, raised the Toronto Stock Exchange to new heights and fattened the national balance of payments surplus. Keon says there's a risk that the wealth generated from energy sales could threaten the drive to improve competitiveness and productivity.

Between 2000 and 2005, resource exports as a percentage of GDP have soared from 43% to 53%, marking a shift back to non-tradable goods.

"We're not going to be driven to compete and other countries will pass us by," he says. "No matter how busy we get, no matter how preoccupied we get (R&D) is an area we just can't let up on. It has to stay on the radar. It's economic suicide to let this slip in any way."


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