Those individuals recently selected as governor general of Canada, the Canadian science advisor, the president and scientific director of the Gairdner Foundation (which awards Canada’s most prestigious awards in the life sciences) as well as the federal minister of science demonstrate that Canada’s talent in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is diverse. All of the above selections are exceptionally talented, and all happen to be women.
This exceptionalism and excellence may now be extended to the lab bench where the next generation of discovery researchers will compete internationally for breakthroughs. In this past week of Nobel Prize announcements, it may be sobering to consider that, in medicine, Canada has been awarded only one Nobel Prize, in 1923. This is by far the worst record of any member of the G7 group of nations that will meet next spring in Canada.
Globally, women are presently the majority of trainees and in several countries are the majority being awarded PhDs, at least in the life sciences. This is now where the talent is to be found. However, whether male or female, Canada has inadvertently served a poison pill to the recruitment of young talent. The report of the Fundamental Science Review panel, better known as the Naylor report, shines a spotlight on the near impossibility of young talented researchers (and especially women) to obtain stable funding to operate their labs.
Even if the report’s recommendations are implemented, Canada will never be able to compete with the U.S. The budget for open operating grants of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, for example, would need to be increased five-fold or more to have similar funding per capita of our neighbours to the south.
Further, there is the separate issue of funding for salaries and infrastructure to recruit young scientists through the Canada Research Chairs program. An emphasis on equity here, while welcomed by all, will not help. The bald fact is that less than half of the newly recruited Canada Research Chairs are able to obtain operating grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
Despite protestations to the contrary, Canadian science is in disarray. The CIHR is essentially financially insolvent. It must cancel competitions (this has already been done twice) in order to use the money to pay for current commitments. The Naylor report represents the minimum effort needed merely to tread water and, even if it is implemented, funding levels will remain impossibly low. Hence new Canada Research Chair holders will still be unable to obtain funding to operate their labs. The situation is even bleaker since the new chair holders often find themselves in environments where the surrounding labs of more senior investigators are often without their own funding, leading to a further cycle of failure.
G7 nations other than Canada have recognized this reality. Continental Europe has already set up a research institute only for young talented discovery researchers in the life sciences who, after a single renewable five-year contract, now populate the universities and research institutes across Europe. Even the U.K., despite its astonishing success in Nobel prizes, has now set up this model through the recently opened Crick Institute in London.
Even with implementation of the Naylor report and an assurance of equity for Canada Research Chairs, Canada’s competitiveness in discovery research can only rise using the model used in continental Europe and in the U.K. of a dedicated discovery research institute to concentrate the talents of early career discovery researchers. It is a proven solution. A rigorous selection process for the best young talent in a discovery research institute modelled on these models may be the only hope for talent and equity to be valued, with its immense benefits through discovery research.
John Bergeron holds the Emeritus Robert Reford Chair in the department of medicine at McGill University.