If you’re not a scientist you can be forgiven for thinking the hard part of research and discovery is having an original, “bright idea”. You’d be wrong! While knowledge, originality, curiosity, persistence, and inventiveness are prerequisites for scientific success, the real obstacle to being a biomedical scientist in Canada is getting and maintaining research funding.
Canadian biomedical scientists get the funding to hire scientific staff and to perform research from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR). To purchase the high-tech tools (infrastructure) they turn to grants from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). These grant programs are underfunded, and some funding programs are poorly designed (from the grant applicant’s perspective). As a result, scientists feel that they spend more time writing grants than doing research. Moreover, low graduate student stipends fail to attract young Canadians and fewer domestic students are pursuing careers in science. This blog is a call for change, with the goal of making a career in biomedical research both enticing and feasible.
The research studies required to test a scientist’s “bright idea” are funded by what CIHR calls a “Project grant”. Each idea or project requires its own grant. Since most scientists are working on multiple ideas/projects at any one time, each principal investigator (the faculty member leading the research) requires multiple grants. CIHR grants pay for the scientific team’s salaries and for all the supplies to do the research. Each lab is like a small business, creating and publishing new knowledge and creating new intellectual property (patents). The highly qualified people (HQPs-aka scientists) in the lab constitute a payroll responsibility for the principal investigator. Biomedical and clinical trials research are the most expensive to fund, and most laboratories need $200,000-400,000/year to function.
Sadly, CIHR grants have become impractically competitive with most grants requiring multiple revisions and resubmissions, often imposing an interval of 1-2 years between first submission and funding. A grant application is a 10-page document (with dozens of supporting pages) in which one spells out their “big idea” for a panel of independent experts, who anonymously review the idea and vote the grant a score ranging from 0-5, with a 5 being a perfect idea, perfectly presented. Writing a grant requires months of focused writing time and substantial (expensive) preliminary data supporting the feasibility of the proposed idea. To be successful, one usually needs 1-2 years’ worth of preliminary data (and you would be right to wonder how this preliminary research gets funded). Once submitted, the researcher needs to wait months for the peer reviewed decision to be delivered. For example, I wrote my most recent CIHR grants during my summer vacation and will be notified of success or failure in late January.
Since project grants only last 5 years, the life of the lab is “on the line” on a recurrent basis. Making matters worse, the odds of getting a grant on the first try are below 20%. Moreover, even funded grants receive an across-the-board budget cut of >20%, resulting in most project grants providing <$200,000/year. I am very grateful for the CIHR grants I have; but my lab, which consists of 4 scientists, 1 technician, 1 post-doctoral fellow and 4 graduate students, has a payroll of >$500,000 per year. Thus, I am obligated to secure ~ 2.5 project grants just to pay for my team. If one adds in the cost of the materials (drugs, cells, animals) required to do the science, a moderate-sized lab like mine requires 3 concurrent project grants to compete at an international level. As a result, I (like other scientists) must write 3 grants and submit each grant 2-3 times just to maintain my laboratory. This time spent writing and revising grants (and reviewing the grants of others) takes away substantially from time available to actually do science! Let’s review the problems with the funding of biomedical science in Canada and consider solutions.
What are the core problems with the funding of Canadian science?
Figure 1: CIHR success rates have halved since 2000. The recent uptick in funding rates reflects across the board cuts of >20% to funded grants thereby allow funding of more, but smaller, grants.
At current funding rates, almost all excellent research programs (scores 4-4.4 in Table below) go unfunded. Grants are rarely funded unless the voted score at peer review committee is >4.4 (which is usually only the top 18% of all grants (i.e. if a panel reviews 30 application only 5 or 6 will be funded and 25 or 26 will be rejected to try again).
Table 1: CIHR scores-to be funded a grant must usually be scored as “outstanding”
Despite an initial grant score of 4.26, my most recently funded CIHR grant did not receive funding until it was in its 3rdsubmission (almost 2 years after I first submitted it) when the grant score rose to ~4.6 (sadly, the revised grant was not materially different than the original version).
Even once funded, challenges remain. CIHR now applies a 23.5% across-the-board cut to all awarded Project Grants, to boost application success rates. These cuts are not made because the reviewers deemed the submitted budget excessive or unjustified; rather they are done solely to increase the funding success rate (i.e. fund some other investigator). Between 2018 and 2020, these across the board cuts had the positive effect of allowing CIHR to fund 87 additional grants per competition; however, the average size of a 5-year Project grant shrank from CA$950,000 to CA$725,000. This means scientific staff must take pay cuts or be terminated and/or the scientific mission can only be partially completed.
CFI has a higher success rate of ~ 30%; for their large infrastructure grants, which are used to purchase the multi-million-dollar tools needed to conduct modern research, such as NextGen gene sequencers, super resolution confocal microscopes, multiomic platforms, etc. However, CFI grants don’t pay for the highly trained scientists that are essential to operate these platforms. This makes it hard, in the long term, to sustain a CFI scientific platform. CIHR also doesn’t fund these career scientists. Thus, those of us that operate core facilities must turn to cash-strapped universities and rely on user’s fees to keep the platforms operational. Often these infrastructure cores fail after just a few years since cash-poor scientists can’t afford to pay users fees at the rate that would be required to sustain the core’s operation and maintain the equipment. I am grateful to CFI and the province of Ontario for the $8 million Translational Research Centre they funded in 2017, the Queen’s Cardiopulmonary Unit (QCPU); however, as QCPU’s Scientific Director, I am left to my own devices to cover the $500,000/year payroll for QCPU’s 6 scientists who provide the scientific services for 70 research groups in 3 faculties at Queen’s University alone! CFI should provide funding for the highly qualified people (HQPs) that that are needed to operate complex infrastructure platforms they fund.
Figure 2: CFI has a 30% funding success rate, allowing purchase of infrastructure (but it does not pay for the scientists who run these scientific infrastructure (IF) platforms).
The stagnation in Canada’s biomedical grant funding reflects the fact that CIHR’s own funding from the Government of Canada has not increased since 2006 (when considered in dollars adjusted to the year 2000; gray line in Figure 3).
Figure 3: CIHR funding, as measured in 2000-adjusted dollars, has been flat since 2006. The asterix includes extra funding provided for COVID-19 research.
How does Canada compare to other western countries? Is our research funding crisis unique? Consider our southern neighbour, the USA. The USA is a relevant comparator because it is home to many of the world’s leading scientists and our leading clinician scientists and PhD scientists, if not funded adequately in Canada, can easily relocate to the USA. The USA’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) had a $41.5 billion USD (approx. $55.7 billion CAD) budget in 2020-2021. In comparison, CIHR had a $1.44 billion CAD budget, which included one-time investments in COVID-19 research. Thus, the USA funds NIH 39-fold more than Canada funds CIHR. This is a disproportionate disadvantage for Canadian scientists and is not explained by Canada’s population, which is only 9-fold smaller than the USA. Rather, relative to the USA there is a massive federal underfunding of Canadian research. Moreover, Canada is the only country in the G7 in which Gross domestic spending on R&D has decreased since 2001 (Figure 4-red line).
Figure 4: Canadian research expenditure, as % of gross domestic product (GDP), has been declining for two decades
This tough funding environment makes it no surprise that fewer young Canadians are choosing careers in science. In fact, we would be in crisis were it not for immigration of talented scientists to Canada. My lab and the QCPU platform have scientists from Brazil, the UK, Iran, Iraq, Taiwan, China, and India with only a minority of scientists being Canadian born.
Let’s Talk Science is a national, charitable organization that motivates and empowers youth to fulfill their potential and prepare for their future careers and roles as citizens. They support learning and skill development through engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Their most recent 2012-2022 Snapshot of A Decade shows that the number of Canadian students in postgraduate STEM programs is flat, with all the growth relating to increases in international students (Figure 5). Arguably, domestic students are not inspired to enter science training because the career path is fraught and career research scientists and clinician scientist are demonstrably under threat from inadequate funding.
Figure 6 illustrates the fact that Canada has fewer researchers per 1000 employed people, as compared to the average number for OECD countries
It’s not just that scientists spend too much time writing grants that yield grants that are too small for purpose that demotivates Canadian youth from careers in science. The stipends for graduate students pursuing careers in science are also inadequate. For example, trainees that successfully compete for Canada Graduate Scholarships (Master’s program; CGS-M), receive a $17.5K CAD per year award (tax exempt), an amount that has not kept up with inflation and is stagnant since 2003. This is below the low-income level cut-off ($22,000/year CAD) for a single person living in an urban environment! If we want to attract youth to science, we need to pay them well and create a career path that is attractive.
The value-added of better funding science in Canada
Canada gets value-added service, beyond the research itself, in return for the research funding it provides. For example, in addition to discovery and innovations, such as creation of patents and spin off companies, our researchers constitute the top-level talent that our universities rely on to teach students. Many CIHR-funded scientists are also physicians (so called clinician-scientists) and they staff our academic health science centres, serving to provide patient care. Thus CIHR-funded scientists serve many important roles in Canadian universities and hospitals. They are more productive and more likely to remain in Canada if their research is funded. Canada would arguably get an even better return if it funded research more generously.
On a personal note, I am a Canadian and was recruited to the University of Alberta from Minnesota in 1998 by Dr. Paul Armstrong, lured by the chance to apply for CIHR funding and a Scientist award from the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research (AHFMR). I returned to the USA in 2007 but was attracted back to Canada, from the University of Chicago, in 2012 by Dr. Richard Reznick, by the chance to run the Department of Medicine at Queen’s University and the opportunity to apply for both CIHR grants and a large CFI grant, which ultimately created the Queen’s Cardiopulmonary Unit. Funding of my science has repeatedly returned me to Canada, where I have worked hard to improve Medicine and make research contributions. The same story is true for many of my colleagues, who wander the world looking for the best place in which to do research and practice medicine.
What to do to improve the scientific sector in Canada?
The solutions to improve research funding in Canada are well known and are not complex. However, solutions will require more federal funding so that the odds of a research grant being funded are reasonable (i.e. ~30%). In addition to the Government of Canada putting more funds into CIHR and CFI to increase success rates and grant size, we need CIHR to eliminate the arbitrary cuts to funded grants and increase funding for graduate students. We also need two changes to our grant funding programs (one relevant to CIHR and the other to CFI). CIHR should restore their very successful Foundation grant scheme (a program that provided more funding to successful scientists for longer periods of time) whilst CFI should provide funding for the highly qualified people (HQPs) that are needed to operate complex infrastructure platforms they fund (more on these suggestions follows).
The fix for Canadian science has been well enunciated by a blue-ribbon scientific panel in 2017 (Figure 7). This group generated the Fundamental Science Review, also known as the Naylor Report, which recognized that Canadian science was underfunded and was falling behind. The panel, which included Queen’s own Dr. Art McDonald, made simple recommendations to improve Canadian research. The review recognized two things: first, that CIHR is underfunded and second it to earmarks a substantial portion of its limited funds to targeted proposals that the government perceives as meeting its priorities; rather than funding research and discovery science envisioned by Canada’s researchers. Their most important recommendation was that the federal government rapidly increase its investment in independent investigator-led research to redress the imbalance caused by differential investments favoring priority-driven targeted research over the past decade.
Figure 7: The Naylor committee’s recommendations would have seen a cumulative base increase in steady state across the four agencies that fund science in Canada from $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion.
To implement the advice of the Naylor report would require commitment of an additional 0.4% of the Government of Canada’s annual budget to our science sector. This has not happened! Likewise, a principal recommendation of the committee, was the formation of an independent advisory committee on basic research and industrial innovation. It was envisioned that this committee would be comprised of leaders in research and industry, not government employees. Our government currently makes many top-down decisions about science funding (with the “deciders” being bureaucrats rather than scientists). These decisions allot hundreds of millions of dollars to select research areas, without an overall strategic scientific plan or an external scientific committee to advise them. An external advisory committee would be able to guide government in a more objective manner and reduce political interference in science. Such a committee would no doubt tell the government of Canada to support basic research adequately, to invest in the training of scientists and could identify “emerging area of research” that might merit targeted research funding. The government has many ways to fund its priority innovation programs that need not masquerade as research grants!
Figure 8 shows the funding needed to implement the Naylor report has not been forthcoming. The government invested ~ half of the requested funding, leaving Canadian science mired in the status quo.
While we await implementation of the Naylor report what else can we do?
CIHR should resurrect a very successful program that by its own assessment, reduced application and peer review fatigue and properly funded Canada’s leading scientists. This program was called the Foundation grant program. CIHR itself recognized the drag on scientists’ time that came from repeated application and peer review of multiple small Project grants. CIHR understood that successful scientists usually held 2-3 project grants, as shown in Figure 9.
Figure 9: Top researchers in Canada usually hold 2-3 Project grants
CIHR responded to this problem with the best idea they have had in 2 decades, Foundation grants. Foundation grants allowed scientists to bundle all their research into one large application (rather than multiple discrete projects) and funded the bundle for 7 years (instead of 5 years). This allowed successful scientists to spend more time on science and discovery and less on writing and reviewing grants. Foundation grants averaged $3 million/7 years. By 3 years into the Foundation grant program, half of Canada’s top scientists had switched from holding multiple project grants to holding a single Foundation grant (myself included). My Foundation grant gave me the stability and flexibility to simultaneously study oxygen sensing, mitochondrial dynamics and develop drugs to treat pulmonary hypertension, cancer, and COVID-19!
The odd thing about the Foundation grants was that the program was reviewed positively and yet the program was terminated. In May 2018 Professor Terrance P. Snutch, University of British Columbia submitted (at CIHR’s request) a report of the impact of the Foundation Grant program, which by then had run for 4 years. The report showed that Foundation grants were held by 76% of leading Canadian scientists (Figure 10) and the churn of applications for Project grants had reduced.
Figure 10: By year 3 of the Foundation grant program, Foundation grants (gold) were being held by 76% of Canada’s top scientists (and they no longer applied for multiple project grants).
The Foundation grant program was evaluated as being successful and the following recommendations were made:
To my knowledge this report was not released and the Foundation grant program was unceremoniously terminated, forcing grant holders to, once again, apply for 2-3 project grants.
What should we do to put Canada on the forefront of science and discovery internationally?
- Fully implement the recommendations of the Naylor report.
- Restore the CIHR Foundation Grant program (without cutting the Project grants).
- Continue to focus on support for Early Career Researchers through preferential access to Project grants (as is pointed out in items 8 through 11 of the report assessing Foundation grants above). To attract young scientists to Canada and to retain trainees after their degrees, there must sufficient funding so that they can realistically succeed in starting their research programs.
- Change CFI grants so that they automatically include the salaries for the scientists that are required to run the infrastructure platform.
- Increase the annual stipend to Canadian scientific graduate students.
Conclusions: Canada needs new scientific mojo and swagger. Investment in Canadian scientists and graduate students will yield new technology. In addition, each lab is a small business which will return funds to government through income tax and sales tax. Scientists also teach at our universities and clinician scientists also provide health care. Proper funding of science would make Canada healthy, wealthy, and wise! Canada might do well to take a page from President John F Kennedy and proudly invest in research, as he proposed in a 1963 interview in the journal, Science.
Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce. John F. Kennedy
Acknowledgements: Thank you to the following colleagues for their advice and editorial input: Dr. Art McDonald, Dr. Charlie Hindmarch, Dr. Kimberly Dunham-Snary, Dr. Kathie Doliszny, and Ms Brooke Ring.