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In my opinion

Beyond the Nobel Prize in medicine – the Canada conundrum

Our emphasis on boutique funding programs, rather than open discovery science, hampers our prospects.


For the 96th successive year, no Canadian-based discovery was deemed worthy of recognition for a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine when this year’s winners were announced on October 7. Fully expecting this outcome, the organizers of a conference in Montreal on October 3 debated why Canada remains unsuccessful.

The conference, “Beyond The Nobel Prize: Performing Scientific Excellence in Canada,” began with a presentation from Urban Ahlin, the Swedish ambassador to Canada. Then, Nils Hansson from the University of Dusseldorf and Thomas Schlich from McGill University invited Gairdner Foundation president and scientific director Janet Rossant, Canadian Medical Hall of Fame laureate Jacalyn Duffin from Queen’s University, and the Lancet executive editor Jocalyn Clark from London, as the morning speakers. Although recognizing the “noble” aspects of awards, the data were clear with respect to the shockingly low level of nominations and awards for Canadians, and for women globally. The speakers acknowledged a lack of transparency, including with the nomination process itself, with the Gairdners being totally open and the Nobel Prizes restricted.

The afternoon session featured examples of specific nominees for the Nobel, with the conference organizers Drs. Hansson and Schlich documenting the highly exclusive networks that have evolved for Nobel nominations and the history of how this has happened. A consensus from the conference was that such awards were of value to science and any effort to improve on Canada’s record was to be welcomed, as would an effort to increase radically gender equity for awards.

Today, Nobel Prizes in medicine or physiology are given to scientists who themselves have defined the problem to be solved, how to do it, and then went ahead to put in the hard work to solve the problem with experiments whose outcomes and importance have stood the test of time.

In the life sciences, rewarding scientific excellence in Canada has taken a different route. Boutique funding programs that largely exclude open science are preferred. The Canada First Excellence Research Fund goes to individual universities through the president or principal of that university, who have themselves selected a priority area to support. The Canada Excellence Research Chairs and Canada 150 Research Chairs, also funded by Canadian taxpayers, go to discoveries made outside of Canada, with the investigators who made these discoveries recruited to Canada through this funding mechanism.

By contrast, funding open science by Canada’s own investigators has not been seen as a priority. For the life and health sciences, our national funding agency, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, is now reduced to supporting poorly funded project grants that have a 15 percent success rate and are male dominated. Multiple reports have been written and hand-wringing has ensued in the scientific community, but the priorities of our political decision-makers are elsewhere. The prospects for a future Nobel in physiology or medicine is therefore highly unlikely since discoveries come from open science and rarely from managed, unaccountable top-down decision-makers.

Canada is seen as important to the international network of award recognition for discoveries through the Gairdner Foundation. Ninety-two Gairdner award winners have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, including all three of this year’s winners, who were recognized by the Gairdner Foundation in 2010. As the leading predictor of eventual Nobel Prizes in medicine, there is a clamour internationally for Gairdner recognition.

Gender equity is a priority for the Gairdner Foundation. However, the number of nominations and awards for women remains at less than 10 percent. The number of Canadians winning Gairdner International Awards has declined precipitously, regardless of gender, coincident with the lack of priority for funding open discovery research in Canada.

Scientists, especially in Canada, are generally not distracted by the glamour of award recognition. Go into any discovery lab in the life sciences in Canada; they are populated by a majority of women who are largely motivated by the satisfaction of having made discoveries that they themselves know benefit the foundation of knowledge and will impact our health and well-being. The science agenda, meanwhile, was absent from the recent Canadian federal election.

Perhaps as the 100th anniversary approaches to celebrate our one and only Nobel Prize in medicine (Frederick Banting in 1923), we will use that occasion to start a meaningful conversation about the importance of open discovery research in the life sciences.

John Bergeron is the Emeritus Robert Reford Professor and a professor of medicine at McGill University. Kathleen Dickson is a retired chief technician from the Montreal Neurological Institute.

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  1. Larry Fliegel / November 17, 2019 at 00:21

    All so true, more and more of CIHR funds seem to be directed to peoples favourite “special” areas and special initiatives, which likely involve their own interests

    But how do we go about changing the funding system?