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COVID-19 a lesson to governments to increase science funding, say Canada’s Nobel laureates

To tackle the world’s biggest problems, ‘we’re going to need our government and scientists working together.’


Governments need to increase funding for infectious disease research and develop greater manufacturing capacity for vaccines and medical devices in order to prevent or mitigate the harms of the next inevitable pandemic, according to three of Canada’s Nobel Prize laureates.

“We cannot go through another pandemic like this,” said Michael Houghton, a professor in medical microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta. A second pandemic of this magnitude in our lifetimes would have an impact on everyone, but some countries may “literally fold up,” he said. “So all countries, not just Canada, really have to increase their funding for infectious disease at the basic level, but also at the translational level.”

Dr. Houghton is Canada’s most recent Nobel Prize winner; he won the distinguished award in physiology or medicine in 2020. On March 3, he joined two of Canada’s other Nobel laureates – Donna Strickland, a professor at the University of Waterloo, who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in physics, and Arthur McDonald, professor emeritus at Queen’s University and former director of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Collaboration, who won the award in physics in 2015 – for an online discussion on Canadian research excellence organized by Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs) and hosted by CBC News anchor Suhana Meharchand.

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The global response from the scientific community to the pandemic has been “really, really reassuring,” Dr. Houghton continued, and has proven that with proper resources, scientists and researchers can prepare the world for the challenges ahead. “Everyone – basic researchers, translational scientists, medics, public health agencies, governments – [came together] to deal rapidly, with vaccination anyway, against the pandemic.”

Dr. McDonald stated that scientists were able to move quickly on these vaccines because the basic research had already been done in the years before the virus emerged. They were also able to drop what they were doing and move quickly on other important aspects of the fight against COVID-19, including ventilator production.

Last year, Dr. McDonald led an international team of physics researchers, including Queen’s physicists, to quickly develop a ventilator that can be constructed easily in Canada and other countries. With existing capabilities in handling and controlling gases, researchers were able to create a manufacturable product and received approval from Health Canada in a matter of months. “In our case with the ventilators, none of us had worked in medical devices before. And we were able to mobilize scientists who previously had been doing basic science in national labs and universities,” Dr. McDonald said. “That’s one example of the fact that there’s a deep pool of scientists, who typically work on other things, that can be mobilized in order to meet a national need.”

Another global challenge that scientists are tirelessly studying is climate change, Dr. Strickland pointed out. Just gathering and understanding climate data will need more financial support from governments, she said. “This is one of the areas that scientists have been out there talking about and trying to get the governments to listen. I’m not saying [they] aren’t listening, but they could be listening more,” she said. “The environment is something that is just so interspersed around the world, from the oceans to the Arctic, to the air. … We’re going to need our government and scientists working together.”

It’s helpful that science is in the news as researchers continue to make developments in the battle against COVID-19, Dr. Strickland said. The public’s support for scientific work is vital, but scientists still have plenty of convincing to do to get everyone on board, added Dr. Houghton.

“One of the challenges we all face is somehow convincing the non-believers of the importance of science, and it is frustrating,” he said. He added that Canadians in general have high respect for the work of scientists, but this kind of respect doesn’t exist everywhere, or with every government, which means scientists must engage in public relations work along with their research. “The COVID vaccine … has demonstrated to people the importance of science to protect us,” Dr. Houghton said. “The way forward for us as a species [is] everyone’s got to get on board with the power of science.”

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  1. John Bergeron / March 20, 2021 at 09:34

    I hope our U15 University Presidents/Principals/Rectors champion a budget increase to the base budgets of the tri-councils of CIHR/NSERC/SSHRC in the next federal budget. We are indebted to the talent and efforts of Drs. Strckland, McDonald and Houghton for their dedication and advocacy backed by the credibility of their own independent recognition as Nobel laureates.
    Without the U15 universities as their number 1 priority championing basic research and the support of our most talented in the arts, humanities, and STEM, Canada will be forever relegated to a status of depending on other countries for solutions to the challenges of health, disease, climate change and whether we are to be leaders or poor cousins to global efforts to meet these challenges.

  2. John Bergeron / March 20, 2021 at 14:50

    Could the U15 University Presidents/Rectors/Principals champion this message to ask for an increase in the base budgets of NSERC, CIHR and SSHRC as the first priority for the federal budget?