Next week's federal budget needs to build upon – and further encourage – scientific and medical research in Canada.
The present moment is critical, because of the arrival of the Obama administration. Though the practical effect of the Bush administration's denial of federal funding to embryonic stem-cell research has been exaggerated, Canada attracted many scientists in those years, thanks to a reputation for greater enlightenment. That competitive advantage has now been lost, but fresh Canadian funding can help to hold on to, and attract, good researchers.
Science strategy should be at the core of the federal government's agenda. A year ago, the phasing out of the office of an independent national science adviser signified a downgrading of scientific research, which ought to be reversed.
A high proportion of research and development in Canada takes place in universities, compared to similar countries. Canada has done quite well in recruiting people and in building facilities, but less well in providing direct grants to specific research programs. These three elements need to work together, and the budget should give more to the agencies that award money for research.
Moreover, some American-owned corporations that do R&D in Canada are thinking about cutting costs by consolidating and moving this work to the U.S. They need some incentives, such as an investment tax credit, to keep it here.
One salient example of how science can point to “public goods” in the economic sense can be found in the prevention of adverse reaction to medications. Recent research is increasingly refining genomics, so that individual genetic profiles can lead to case-by-case decisions on how to treat, and how not to. Genetic markers can be identified, so that drugs that work well for most patients but can seriously harm others are not prescribed when they should not be.
It is not yet profitable for pharmaceutical companies to provide such a highly customized service. As for firms that retail genomics to the general public, their results do not convey a great deal of information value. The market is failing to prevent side effects from drugs that are highly particular to individuals. Thus, personalized genomics is a public good that calls for public investment. Canadian health care, with its emphasis on treatment, has comparatively neglected prevention. The federal government can fill this gap, helping to make Canadians healthier. and more productive.
Initiatives such as these would enhance Canada's productivity, wealth and well-being.