Opinion: Investment in research and innovation has huge implications for who will be most prepared for global crises, as we have learned from our decision to outsource vaccine production

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The pandemic has highlighted that our best option to combat future global crises is to invest broadly in research.

As Matt Damon’s character in the movie The Martian exclaims when he finds himself abandoned on Mars: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I have only one option … I’m going to … science the shit out of this.”

As scientists, we see many examples of how evidence stemming from research is the key to solving major problems. Thankfully, our government supports this view with the new Standing Committee on Science and Research and the appointment of Canada’s Chief Science Advisor. These changes mean research findings are now incorporated into evidence-informed policy decisions. Canada has an outstanding community of scientists to provide such evidence. In fact, Canadian researchers punch above their weight in the impact of our research globally.

However, our research community is in jeopardy as Canada sits near the bottom of the G7 nations for research spending by GDP. Canada has decreased spending on research as a percentage of GDP, opposite to many other countries. Similarly, the budget for the main health research funding agency in the U.S. — the National Institutes of Health — has nearly quadrupled since 1995 with a budget of $52 billion. Contrast this with the budget for our main health research funding agency — the Canadian Institutes of Health Research — which has remained relatively static at $1.2 billion. Even when you consider population differences, Canada is underinvesting in health research by 500 per cent compared to the U.S.

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Investment in research and innovation has huge implications for who will be most prepared for global crises, as we have learned from our decision to outsource vaccine production. We urgently need to make larger investments in domestic research.

Here are a few things to ensure any future investment in research can maximize its impact:

• We must recognize that scientific breakthroughs are always made on the foundation of many years of seemingly unrelated research.

Research can seem unrelatable or fringe without any discernible immediate benefit. Yet this kind of research has time and again led to major scientific breakthroughs. The quick development of COVID-19 vaccines was possible only because scientists had been working on bat coronaviruses and “wild and fanciful” mRNA-based vaccines for many years.

We need to accept that research is a long game and requires decades of work before an applied outcome. This is worth accepting because, as we know, in the end the benefits far outweigh the costs.

• We must recognize that diverse people and research are our best opportunity for progress.

We need co-operation and engagement from experts across disciplines to solve the many issues that have arisen during the pandemic. This includes counteracting misinformation, working out the logistics of effective vaccine distribution, improving ventilation systems to reduce the spread of viruses, dealing with mental health issues related to the pandemic and long-term effects of COVID-19 infection.

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Although it is very tempting to divert research funding into priority areas, it is a mistake to think that we can anticipate where the solutions will come from. Diversity breeds discovery, so if we support diversity in research — in the people, the areas, and the ideas that we fund — we will be ready for unanticipated challenges ahead.

• We must recognize that investing in research will build a knowledge and innovation economy and improve opportunities for future generations.

Underfunding of Canadian research is happening within a tremendous pool of talent. Canadian high school students score near the top in scientific literacy compared to students in other countries. University research laboratories employ and train large numbers of students, who then go on to a variety of jobs for which these critical thinking skills are essential. Increasing investment in research would capitalize on the success of our world-class education system, provide opportunities for our youth, and shift our economy towards innovation.

Investing in research will help us prepare for (and avoid) future crises. It will also provide essential training for our youth to support our knowledge- and innovation-based economy.

Yes, this will cost money. But in the words of noted philanthropist Mary Lasker: “If you think research is expensive, try disease.”

The $1.2 billion that we invest in the CIHR annually pales in comparison to the $1 billion spent per day by Canada during the pandemic. The icing on the cake is that publicly funded research is estimated to offer a 20 per cent annual return on investment. Compared to the stock market average of 9.3 per cent, the odds of investing in research look pretty good.

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Liisa Galea, PhD, is a Distinguished University Scholar, Health Advisor to the Vice-President of Research, and Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. She is a Scientific Advisor at Women’s Health Research Institute and lead for the Women’s Health Research Cluster at UBC. She sits on the advisory board of Institute of Gender and Health and the University Delegates Executive Committee at Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

Lisa Saksida, PhD, FCAHS, FRSC is a Canada Research Chair in Translational Cognitive Neuroscience, Professor of Physiology and Pharmacology, and Co-Scientific Director of a Canada First Research Excellence Fund program in Cognitive Neuroscience at Western University. She is a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and in 2020 was selected as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network.


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