Nova Scotia

Dr. Rob Brownstone, top neuroscientist, leaving Halifax for England

After 15 years, one of the country's top neuroscience researchers is leaving Halifax to pursue his medical career in England where he says funding for the type of work he does is more secure.

Canada Research Chair for spinal cord circuits laments federal funding cuts to 'pure' science

Dr. Rob Brownstone, a top Canadian neuroscientist, is preparing to leave Halifax for England. (Jennifer Henderson/CBC)

One of the country's top neuroscience researchers is leaving Halifax to pursue his medical career in England, where he says financial support for the type of work he does is more secure.

Dr. Rob Brownstone, who's lived in Halifax for 15 years, said while he's been lucky to have received solid funding in Canada, he's troubled that support by federal agencies for discovery science is on the decline.

He said funding is now focusing more on applied research.

"Attitudes toward research by our federal government have not been particularly encouraging," Brownstone told CBC News.

"I think there are significant changes in our funding bodies and those changes are going to have significant impact on research and, more worrisome, on research training. So, even if there were a reversal, it would take time to recover."

Brownstone holds the Canada Research Chair in spinal cord circuits at Dalhousie University and operates on patients at the QEII Health Sciences Centre. He also heads a motor control lab of six scientists who work with patients with Parkinson's disease, ALS and epilepsy to learn how the brain controls movement.

In England, he'll take a position as chair of neurosurgery at University College London beginning August 1. 

"It's always difficult to make these big decisions," Brownstone said.

"The institution there is superb with tremendous colleagues on the science and clinical side. It's one of those opportunities that would be hard to say no to."

Brownstone will not only be working with a larger group of collaborators, he'll be taking some scientists from Halifax with him.

"The research will continue in the U.K.," he said. 

England's gain, Nova Scotia's loss

The motion control lab on the third floor of the Life Sciences Research Centre on Summer Street in Halifax has grown from one to six principal investigators since Brownstone arrived. 

Last year alone, Brownstone's research received $1.7 million in federal money and he helped organize an international conference in Halifax.

In London, however, Brownstone said his funding will be more secure because the U.K. continues to value pure, or discovery, science. He said that's just not the case in Canada, where he believes money is being increasingly directed toward applied research. 

Brownstone also said Dalhousie should better leverage medical research at the university and benchmark itself against larger schools.

"It would be great if Dalhousie University could start thinking of itself as university to compete with the big five universities in Canada — McGill, Montreal, Toronto, Alberta and B.C. — rather than competing against other Atlantic Canadian universities," he said.

"It's really important to think of yourself as a top-notch research university if you are going to make advances."

Brownstone says the only thing that could have kept him in Halifax would have been the creation of a research hospital at the QEII Health Sciences Centre. It's something he said the province should have done when it consolidated nine health authorities into one.

"I think this was a lost opportunity because we could have had a real teaching and research hospital here," Brownstone said.

"We have the infrastructure at the QEII Health Sciences Centre where people are referred."

Brownstone's vision of a teaching and research hospital in Halifax would not require a new building, but what he describes as "a change in culture — the idea where everyone from the janitor to the doctor could ask questions and where patients could expect to be enrolled in leading edge clinical trials."

The economic benefit to the province, Brownstone argues, would be attracting and retaining more clinical scientists as well as millions of research dollars, 60 per cent of which he says gets spent on salaries.


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