Why doesn't Canada support mid-career, discovery-based scientists?

Imagine: A Canadian athlete prepares to go for his second gold medal after 15 years of training, then just before the Olympics, the government cuts all funding for his sport. That's what the Canadian grant system is like for some of our scientists.

Research Manitoba cut to mid-career grants for health sciences researchers leaves tenured scientists hanging

Our scientists face the nearly impossible task of making life-saving discoveries or scientific history without good financial support. (Getty Images/Hero Images)

Imagine: A Canadian athlete trains and works for 15 years, preparing to make history — then just before he goes for his second gold medal at his second Olympics, the government cuts all Olympic funding for his sport.

That's what funding is like for some of our scientists, who face the nearly impossible task of making life-saving discoveries or scientific history without good financial support.

Research Manitoba recently released its new funding guidelines. Money goes, in very small grant amounts, to new investigators in a much wider area of fields than previously (not just health sciences but natural sciences and humanities, too). At the same time, it cut its program for health research mid-career investigator operating grants.

On the federal level, the government puts a lot of money into new five year term Canada Research chairs. This pays for new positions, equipment and lab startup funds, but provides little for ongoing lab support, research technicians or grad student research and education.

As most primary investigators will tell you, it's impossible for one senior scientist to do all the hands-on bench work. Without technicians, graduate students and a steady fund for lab supplies, all the fancy equipment in the world can't do the daily research.

Both the Canada Research Chair program and Research Manitoba propel Canada's academic research laboratories with their grant money. The current system ensures that funding usually goes to new investigators, big consortia or applied research (versus basic research). 

Applied research may see immediate effects on crop pests or health epidemics, but without discovery-oriented, basic research, there's no way to gather the essential background knowledge.

It's basic research that makes great leaps that may save lives and the environment.

For example, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in September 1928. He published his description of penicillin in 1929. His work went relatively unnoticed.

Fleming continued research on a small scale in the 1930s. Eventually, a team of researchers in Oxford picked it up in 1940, and made it a success for all of us. The discovery of antibiotics became an essential applied research field.

Individuals who pursue research independently, such as Alexander Fleming with his accidental discovery of penicillin, make a difference. (Davies/Getty Images)
These consortia, or teams, still work today. They're often all former students of one successful scientist/advisor who mentored them toward a well-funded, successful research strategy.

Without those initial, independent discoveries, science research would be incrementally slower and less varied. Individuals who pursue research independently, such as Fleming with his accidental discovery of penicillin, make a difference. 

Without Fleming's work, a lot of us would not be alive today.

Among people I know in academia in mid-career, some become superstars. If you win a Guggenheim, you can find money to fund your lab's research.

Other professors, while smart enough to earn PhDs, do post-doc research and secure academic jobs in their fields, are left high and dry. Due to bad luck or circumstance, they don't have enough funding to continue.

Some change their research program to become applied scientists. Others close down aspects of their research programs due to lack of funding. Still others struggle to compete for funds.

What reasons can the Canadian government give for ditching our scientific experts in mid-career, when they are at their most accomplished? What does that give Canadians?

These tenured scientists often work as very overqualified lecturers. These are people whose training has been paid for mostly by public funds, but they cannot use their skills. At the other end of the spectrum, they might leave the field or academia out of frustration.

Yet nowhere does the system admit this.

We waste everyone's time and public funds to have these tenured scientists die on the vine, hanging out in labs that cannot afford new computers or to pay people a living wage to run the equipment.

It doesn't promote or push Canada's research agenda. It doesn't even allow undergrads successful summer research opportunities. If you can't afford the chemicals to do the experiments, you can't teach anyone how to do the lab bench work.

Discovery vs. applied science

Universities require professors to research, teach and serve the community. On an individual level, deans press professors to provide active student research experiences, but like a lot of competing obligations and pressures, some go unmet.

This is an impossible equation and there's no way to solve the problem without adequate money and time to do the work.

Does Canada want to be on the cutting edge of basic or discovery science, or is it all about applied science?

There's nothing wrong with researching the collapse of honey bee colonies or preventing the extinction of endangered species. Of course not — but penicillin was discovered by a scientist with a lively intellect, a messy lab bench and a little time to see what was possible.

There's no doubt we must require academics to compete for grant funding. Scientists must prove that their research remains viable.

However, even when academics' grant applications to the federal government succeed, the funds the government awards aren't enough to actually get the work done.

Professors with many years of education and experience are forced to waste years of vital research time due to insufficient financial support. They try, on salaries frozen by the province, to fund small amounts of research on a shoestring.

Researchers want to keep doing what Canada trained them to do and what provincial universities hired them to accomplish.

It's time to give today's mid-career scientists enough grant money to make those basic discoveries again.

Most scientists will tell you that the daily demands of good research are a slog. Even with financial support, there's little glory to it.

It's definitely not the athlete's dream of Olympic gold, but in the long run, their discoveries just might save our lives.

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Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, including Knit Green, about textile sustainability. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.