Technology & Science

Lack of science funding risks brain drain, CMAJ editorial warns

An editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal urges the country's medical research community to speak up in protest against the lack of government funding to avoid a repeat of the brain drain of doctors and scientists of the mid-1990s.

Federal budget cut money for research councils, made no new invetsment in key areas

Without more investment in science and technology, "Canada's future will start looking perilously like Russia's present — a country that has vast resources but outmoded technology," warns a Canadian Medical Association Journal editorial on the 2009 federal budget.

Canada's medical research community needs to speak up in protest because the country risks a repeat of the brain drain of doctors and scientists that occurred in the mid 1990s, says the editorial posted in Thursday's online edition of the journal.

In the Jan. 27 budget, Canada's three research councils collectively had their budgets cut by $147.9 million, or five per cent, the editorial said. Neither Genome Canada nor the Canada Research Chair program, which allows universities and research institutes to attract top scientists from around the world, received any new money.

"As a consequence, we fear that our patient, Canada's economy, will remain on life support," the editorial writers said.

In contrast, the U.S. government is pledging $11.9 billion–$13 billion US for scientific research, and the United Kingdom is continuing its investment of 1.7 billion pounds ($3.1 billion Cdn) for applied health research in 2009/2010, although both countries have been hit hard by the economic crisis.

"In saying yes to deficits and stimulus, yet being lukewarm to science, the unmistakable message from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is that science is unimportant in Canada's economy," the editorial says.

The problem may have arisen in part because the health sector assumed that the benefits of health research are self-evident and that budgets would grow, the article said.

Canadian scientists and doctors "are capable of home runs," says the editorial, citing the following examples:

  • Developing drugs such as lamivudine for HIV/AIDS and monelukast for asthma.
  • Identifying the secrets of dangerous disease, such as the sequence of the SARS virus genome that was unveiled in Canada.
  • Revealing life-prolonging knowledge such as the benefits of using ramipril and the harms of taking proton-pump inhibitors in combination with clopidogrel for patients at risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Solving puzzles in biology such as cloning the T-cell receptor to understand why infectious diseases kill or are cured.

Medical schools depend on talented doctors who split their time between clinical duties, teaching and research. When their research budgets are cut, they will emigrate, schools will lose teachers and laboratories and the doctor shortage will worsen, the editorialists argued.

"To create Canada's future, our government should borrow from the United Kingdom and Switzerland's present — countries that have few natural resources but are rich in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology," the editorial says.