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The Black Hole

An open letter to Stephen Harper on the status of science funding in Canada


The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A2

Dear Mr. Harper,

Canada is in the historically unique position to begin reversing the academic brain-drain and establish our nation as a world leader in the knowledge market through our innovation of science and technology.

I am a Canadian citizen, researcher at Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Like many other top-tier Canadian scientists and their spouses, my wife (a physician) and I made the difficult decision to leave our country for the United States, where higher institutional funding rates meant I was more likely to be successful. While this decision has benefited me in my career, it has meant that my ensuing industry partnerships, scientific discoveries and resultant patent have directly benefited the American economy, despite the significant sums of money invested by the Canadian public to train me. Given the present funding climate for basic research in the U.S., my wife and I are hoping to return home to Canada this year, alongside hundreds of other Canadian scientists.

Research scientists are driven entirely by their work, and have significantly more flexibility in deciding where to practice their craft than most other professionals. Principal investigators lead research teams of 10 to hundreds of junior scientists, are recruited to universities on the basis of their research accomplishments, and attract hundreds of thousands of dollars in private investments. Most importantly, scientists relocate often to retain stable/persistent funding for the world-changing advancements they make that regularly take a minimum of 5-10 years to develop.

While generally considered separate from the private market, companies that have spun out of research universities have a far greater success rate than other companies, creating jobs and spurring economic activity. Google is a prime example. By definition, industry-creating research of the calibre done at top-tier research labs is high-risk/high-gain, for which we are uniquely positioned because of government support and freedom from corporate pressures. Indeed, more than half of our economic growth since World War II can be traced to science-driven technological innovation. This includes medical breakthroughs in heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. Business and industry, by comparison, conduct less than 20% of basic research in North America, much of which is outsourced to academic labs. The remainder is accomplished by universities.

By comparison, companies are necessarily more risk averse because of their financial obligations to shareholders. The foresight that public interests cannot be left to private enterprise is what ultimately led to the establishment of our research institutes. The National Research Council of Canada was created in 1916 to “advise the government on matters of science and industrial research.” The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which evolved from the Medical Research Council of Canada, followed in June 2000 to “create new scientific knowledge and enable … a strengthened Canadian health care system.” These institutes find their American counterparts in the National Academies of Science and National Institutes of Health, which like our own institutes, were created to add “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery … of new and useful things” (Abraham Lincoln). Without fuel, the fire of ingenuity will slowly burn itself out. Our country is in the best possible position to reignite it here.

The combination of automatic spending cuts to the federal budget foisted on the American public this year, a deadlocked Congress and diminishing investment in the basic sciences has created a unique opportunity for Canada to reverse the brain-drain and establish itself as a world leader in knowledge market. Renewed investment in basic research, specifically new investigator grants, infrastructure support and trainee awards, will allow this administration to attract scientists from top-tier research institutes abroad back to Canada. The labs they found directly create jobs – employing research teams, lab technicians, equipment manufacturers, administrative staff, intellectual property lawyers and others; the research they perform attract the best and brightest minds in the world to their labs; their discoveries create new industries; and their presence supports and builds surrounding companies through collaborations. Canada has invested greatly in training new PhDs in science and technology – this is our chance to recuperate our investment.

It is without question that we face more complex challenges today than we have ever faced before. We train the greatest scientific minds in the world – and send them away to benefit the growing research and development industries abroad. Our biomedical research holds the promise of unlocking new cures and treatments – but is simultaneously sorely underfunded and at risk of collapse. We compete in a global marketplace which all nations share in opportunity and growth – but in which we are losing ground in the very sectors we have the expertise and resources to lead. At difficult moments such as these it is tempting to say that we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a privilege at moments defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our health and our quality of life than it has ever been before. Instead of reaping the benefits of progress at a premium, Canada has the chance to become the wellspring of technological innovation for the world – fostering scientific advancement and economic growth.

Your government has a chance to make that difference.

Thank you for taking the time to address my letter and I look forward to your response.


Jonathan Thon, PhD

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the Founder and CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon Founded Platelet BioGenesis where he served as CEO and Chief Scientific Officer. Before Platelet BioGenesis Dr. Thon was an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.
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  1. Megan Mueller / August 28, 2013 at 10:02

    Dear Dr. Thon,

    This is a wonderful letter. I tweeted about it (@CAHOhospitals) and circulated it to our staff. We couldn’t agree more.

    Sincerely, Megan Mueller, Communications Specialist, CAHO

  2. Jim / August 30, 2013 at 14:53

    Some good points but there is also a level of arrogance. The author writes that he and his spouse left Canada for greener pastures, that those pastures are now becoming arid and suggests that the Canadian government could lure him and his ilk back if there was greater investment in research. It is true that researchers are fickle follow resources, but it is not as though Canadian science has been dead-in-the-water and would be so much better if he and his top-tier colleagues were only to return from quadrangles of Harvard. I know of a number of universities and research institutes that have maintained a steady flow of new talent using existing funding. Indeed, those already here would likely be more productive with some additional funding compared with the generous relocation and start-up funding required to move mid-career people from elsewhere – especially compared to junior investigators who have been caught in the spending freezes.

    I agree that investments in Canadian science are good for Canada but I doubt it’s been held back by lack of talent, from here or elsewhere.

  3. Lewis Lewis / September 1, 2013 at 16:28

    Dear Drs. Thon,
    I am sorry you left Canada. I doubt very much the current ‘government’ would ask you to return to Canada. However, I will invite you to return to Canada. Not because of your qualifications, though. I invite you back so you can work in the public good and help get rid of the current hatred of science.

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