Friday, January 10, 2014

Canada is destroying a generation of scientists

My department is in a Faculty of Medicine and the main source of research funding for biomedical sciences in Canada is the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The current Conservative Government has been consistently underfunding CIHR over the past six years so that the number of grants available for basic research (e.g. biochemistry and molecular biology) has been falling.

This is the time of the year when my colleagues hear the results of the latest grant competitions. It's been a sad couple of days because four labs failed to get funding for their main research projects. Eight other labs failed to get additional funding for ongoing projects that were not part of their main grant.

What does this mean? Let's think about the consequences for labs that lose their grants. In the short term, the lab will survive until the next application deadline but it means that the Professor running the lab can't take on any new graduate students or post-docs no matter how brilliant they might be. In some cases, the department, or the university, might have to provide "bridging" funds in order to pay the salaries and stipends of people in the lab. If the Professor manages to get the grant back in the next competition then a recovery is possible but a lot of damage has already been done.

However, in many cases the second or third attempts to recover funding are not successful and the lab must shut down. That's the situation we face in our department with several active research groups that have disappeared or are about to disappear.

The first people to be let go are the post-docs who are funded from the grant. They have to scramble to find a new position and this isn't easy. It could be the end of their career.

The most expensive people in the lab are the research technicians ($50-60,000 per year1). They have to be put on notice and they will be fired. These are scientists with advanced degrees who are the heart and soul of a research lab. They are mostly women in mid-career. Many of them will never find another position that pays as well.

Graduate students who are close to finishing can usually be helped but those at the beginning of their studies have to switch to another lab and start a new project. This may not be possible.

Our research labs have two or three undergraduate students doing research projects as part of their degree requirements. As we lose more and more active labs, we also lose the ability to train undergraduates. We also hire undergraduate to work in labs over the summer and this provides invaluable experience in preparation for graduate school. If you don't have a funded lab you can't hire students. If you lose part of your funding, the easiest way to save money is not to hire anyone.

The groups that are losing their grants are the backbone of Canadian research infrastructure. The typical lab has three or four graduate students, a post-doc, and a research technician (research associate, lab manager). It takes about $150,000 per year to sustain such a lab. The Professor who runs the lab is usually between 30 and 40 years old (mid-career). The lab is producing several papers a year in respectable journals. These labs would easily have been funded a decade ago when the success rate on grant applications was 25% but now that it's down to 15% they are being cut out of the system.

Even those labs that are still funded are affected when a colleague loses a grant. That's because there's a lot of sharing of equipment and resources and expertise. We can foresee a time when the department falls below a critical mass of active research labs and when that happens everyone will lose their grants. Morale is already at an all-time low. Students and faculty are more worried about survival than science.

A generation of mid-career scientists is being destroyed by the policies of the Canadian government. Graduate students, post-docs, technicians, and undergraduates are being affected. It might take another generation to recover if funding were to return to appropriate levels. We might never recover if something isn't done soon.

Here at the University of Toronto we used to talk about becoming a world-class research centre. We don't talk about that very much any more.

1. Salary plus benefits.