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As U.S. emerges from dark age, Canada's scientific edge fades

Globe and Mail Update

Scientists across America are celebrating the passing of the Bush administration as the end of a dark age, a bleak stretch in which research budgets shrank and everything — stem cells, sex education, climate change, and the very origins of the Grand Canyon — became a point of conflict.

President Barack Obama has ignited a new optimism among the white coats. In his inaugural speech, he promised to "restore science to its rightful place," hinting at nothing short of a renaissance in the fields of health, energy, the environment and America's schools.

As a testament to that, the United States Friday became the first country in the world to approve a clinical trial of embryonic stem cells in human patients.

But in Canada's research community, Mr. Obama's plans have sparked anxiety that if this country fails to keep pace, it will have a tougher time recruiting smart people and convincing talent not to flock south. In short, Canada could lose its competitive edge to the Obama advantage.

"We have come off a very good period compared to the States and now we are in danger that they will just drive way past us," said Harvey Weingarten, president of the University of Calgary.

University of British Columbia president Stephen Toope is more blunt: "We could be left in the dust."

President Obama has talked of doubling national funds for research over the next 10 years, so from Canada's ivory towers to its lab benches, people here are holding their breath, wondering if Prime Minister Stephen Harper will send a clear signal in Tuesday's federal budget that science matters. In these dire times, research leaders want the government to treat science as an industry that is as vital to economic recovery as propping up the auto sector and building roads.

"Obama has made it clear that smart is the new cool," said Michael Hayden, a world-renowned geneticist at UBC. "As we look at the Canadian situation … and we look at our place in the world, it's clear that a bold initiative in science at this time is crucial."

Yet recent history has made some fretful of the Harper government's plans. After more than a decade of remarkable growth, federal research funding to Canadian universities has flat-lined and sunk. Some Tories' past skepticism on the science of climate change, the government's overruling of the Nuclear Safety Commission, the firing of the commission's president and the Conservatives' decision to abolish the office of the independent national science adviser have brought international criticism.

Ever since Americans elected Mr. Obama, Canadian university leaders have been busy gathering details of his plans to support science and higher education. They've used the data to sharpen their perennial lobbying efforts and convince Ottawa there's an urgent need to boost its support, worried the hard-won gains made in Canada's research sector over the last dozen years will be lost.

There is little question that the brain drain of the Bush era was Canada's gain: The number of American educators who received permits to work here grew by 15 per cent between 2002 and 2007, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. That figure includes a 27-per-cent jump in the number of university professors and assistants who moved north during the same period.

Mick Bhatia, director of the Cancer and Stem Cell Research Institute at McMaster University in Hamilton, has spent the last two and a half years building up a 70-member research team that hails from the U.S., Europe and Asia. Asked if he has concerns that the excitement of the Obama era could lure his people away, he said: "Every day."

"I'm especially worried about the younger people, who are mobile, just starting out with their expectations and they're nimble."

Losing them, he said, is not just a matter of losing good people, but the time and money invested in them. "They go and then you have to start from scratch all over again."

Dr. Bhatia is just about to start recruiting staff for this coming year and jokes that the task would have been much easier if President Obama had lost the election. "I had an e-mail drafted to our top dream picks if [Republican candidate John] McCain had won," he said. "It would have just said, 'When you comin'?'"

'Hope and excitement'

As Mr. Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday, scientists crammed into a small room at the University of Toronto to watch the inauguration on television.

There were researchers from Canada, Scotland, Israel and a few from the U.S., all of them cheering each time Mr. Obama mentioned science and research in his speech. Among them were Guri Giaever and her research partner and husband, Corey Nislow, chemical geneticists who left San Francisco for Toronto in 2006.

"There's an awful lot of hope and excitement," Dr. Nislow said of the mood among U.S. researchers. "Our scientist colleagues are hopeful for the first time in a long time."

Dr. Giaever, 48, and Dr. Nislow, 42, know what it's like to work in a state of despair — it's why they left the U.S. Both were senior research scientists at Stanford University running a lab of 15 people. They relied on funding grants to cover their work, their salaries and those of their lab researchers. The arrangement worked well for six years until the National Institutes of Health, the main medical research funding agency in the U.S., saw its budget shrivel under the Bush administration.

The NIH approved about 25 per cent of grant applications in 2000, Dr. Nislow estimated. But today, he said, that number has dropped to about 8 per cent.

"The scary thing was that colleagues at Stanford and Harvard and places like that who were funded for 20 years had to close their labs," Dr. Giaever said.

Many observers, inside and outside the U.S., believe the NIH budget cuts cost the country a generation of young scientists. The average age of a first-time operating grant recipient at the NIH is now 43, Dr. Nislow said.

For the Stanford couple, whose research involves screening potential cancer drugs in yeast models, the lean funding drove them to consider relocating. "We knew people at U of T who were colleagues of ours for several years and we knew there were excellent places to work here," Dr. Giaever said.

They also knew that Canada had recently had "a big influx of cash" in its research sector and the idea of no longer struggling to keep their lab afloat was a prospect too enticing to pass up.

Research renaissance

The last time Canada let its research spending slide in the mid-1990s, the country lost so many scientists it wiped out entire departments.

Heather Munroe-Blum, principal of McGill University in Montreal, was head of research at U of T during those dark days and saw top academics in field after field pack their bags and head south.

"It was heartbreaking," she said.

The losses spurred the university community to lobby the Liberal government to give them the money to stem the tide. Those efforts paid off. Between 1997 and 2005, annual federal funding for university research more than tripled to more than $2.5-billion from $793,000.

The crisis also prompted the government to create programs to bolster the country's research expertise, such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which funds research infrastructure, and the Canada Research Chairs, which now support 2,000 scholars across the country.

(These programs have since become models of interest to other governments, including the Obama administration.)

The investments also triggered a building boom as state-of-the-art facilities sprang up in major cities. Before long, foreign talent followed.

Leah Cowen, an infectious diseases specialist, came to U of T from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Neuroscientist Evelyn Lambe left Yale University. Noted stem cell scientist Gordon Keller, a returning Canadian, left New York to take the helm at the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Toronto. Dan Goldowitz left an endowed position at the University of Tennessee to become a Canada Research Chair in developmental neuro-genetics at UBC.

"The biggest reason for me leaving was the Bush administration … they were anti-intellectual, intolerant and the NIH pay line was plummeting," said Dr. Goldowitz, who arrived in Vancouver in 2007.

"There just seemed to be a bigger commitment at UBC and Canada-wide for research generally."

Dr. Giaever landed a Canada Research Chair in chemical genetics that came with a generous five-year package to launch her own lab at U of T's sparkling new Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research — a light and airy glass tower that won the 2008 Governor General's Medal in Architecture.

She calls it a "world-class facility" but said the biggest draw north "were the world-class collaborators."

Her husband received a tenured position through U of T's Banting and Best Department of Medical Research and both became assistant professors. They had every reason to believe they had picked the greener pastures. At the CIHR, approvals for grant applications were running in the 20 per cent range, said Dr. Nislow, just as it once had at the NIH.

But only two years into their arrival here, they have sensed winds of change in Canada's research climate — and the breezes aren't warm.

"We're seeing top scientists here having trouble getting funding," Dr. Giaever said. "Not funding renewals tends to have a much greater impact" since it could mean the closing of a lab, people losing jobs and research stopping in midstream.

"If Obama pumps up science, maybe Canada will follow suit. If not, maybe all these people Canada attracted might move."

Stalled research spending

Precisely what stalled research spending in Canada in 2005 is not entirely clear. Some observers peg it to competing interests, complacency and a general loss of momentum. But the effect has been much slower growth rates of research budgets. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Canada's main medical research funding agency, has seen its budget increases drop from the 20-per-cent range in the early 2000s to roughly six per cent in the last few years.

The federal government has developed new programs, such as the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, but this will only support 20 researchers.

Dr. Hayden, director of the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics at UBC, has for years actively recruited foreign talent to Canada. The country has done an admirable job erecting wonderful buildings in which to do research, he said, "but the operating grants to do long-term research are not there."

Dr. Goldowitz at UBC said "it was quite a shock to me to find out that even though I had been recruited [from the U.S.] for a Canada Research Chair, I still had to put together a proposal for a grant that could have been turned down … that's a little bit scary."

McMaster's Dr. Bhatia said he hears the same complaint from foreign recruits. Research grants in the U.S. and the U.K. tend to come in larger chunks and cover longer time periods, he said. "Here we have to come up with three ideas for three different grants [to operate a lab] … So if you're forced to spend a lot of your time writing grant [applications], who is doing the work?"

In 2003, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine tried to recruit Dr. Bhatia. The state-funded organization, created with private money in response to the Bush administration's restrictive policy on stem cells, flew him down, offered him a prominent position, a generous salary and the promise of a fertile lab.

But Dr. Bhatia said no, in part because he worried about whether the money would flow steadily and whether his operation might be shut down. He admits his decision would be much harder to make now. "The obstacles just aren't there any more … They've paved a cleaner road for that kind of recruitment."

High fliers

University leaders said they know many of their high fliers have standing offers to Ivy League schools — and those offers will look more appealing if the government offers no sign of optimism in the coming federal budget.

As Tom Traves, president of Dalhousie University and chairman of the Association of Ontario Universities, said, "You sure want to know that you are part of the agenda. If you are not part of the agenda, why stick around?"

But stem cell scientist Dr. Keller cautioned that for all the promises Mr. Obama has so far made, "he hasn't done anything yet."

Dr. Keller said Canada should view the new administration's plans as a challenge and not worry about losing good people.

"People in our field just don't up and leave," he said. "If we keep pace, we can do as well, and even better than anyone else."

As well, other experts pointed to the fact that it could take time for new research monies to flow in the U.S., and those first years will be spent catering to the back log of funding requests.

For this reason, Dr. Hayden, the CIHR 2008 researcher of the year, said the "bold" initiatives Canada needs are urgent and "not just about money," but rather concrete signs the country values science.

"We already have no science adviser advising our prime minister," he said. Mr. Harper has mentioned no plans to reinstate that position, but Dr. Hayden believes "we should have an office of science and technology at the cabinet level."

In contrast, Mr. Obama has appointed leading scientists as advisers in his inner circle, such as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as his secretary of energy, and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus and MIT genome biologist Eric Lander as chairs of the Presidential Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.

Dr. Hayden also wants to see Canada find a way to commercialize its top-notch research by offering tax and investment incentives to spur industry. As it is, said Dr. Hayden, half of Canada's 500 biotech firms are expected to run out of cash within the year.

"We're in a dreadful state," he said.

Déjà vu

Drs. Giaever and Nislow are fighting hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu.

"It seems like Canada follows the U.S. — just one step behind," Dr. Giaever said, adding "it's a horrible shame." While their funding situation has not reached a fragile state, both lament that most researchers need two or three grants at a time to run a lab of 10 or 12 people in Canada.

In the U.S., one NIH grant can suffice. Here, Dr. Nislow has found the average operating grant size to be about $175,000 a year. As well, they note, "one of the shocks we had when we moved here," is that principal investigators pay for all their students.

In the U.S., students are generally funded through NIH training grants that are given with the condition that the student must remain in the life sciences field or repay the money.

"Since 2000 Canada has been a real champion of science," Dr. Nislow said. "If the funding does not continue [at a strong pace] it would be such a shame."

The couple still own their house in San Francisco and a downsized version of their lab still operates at Stanford. They also just learned that their NIH grant in the U.S. has been renewed for another four years.

"But we really do love the colleagues here, and the collaborators," Dr. Giaever said.

Still, asked if consider returning, Dr. Nislow said yes. "It's definitely something we think about."

Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story did not specify at which university Heather Munroe-Blum served as head of research. Ms. Munroe-Blum was head of research at the University of Toronto and is now principal of McGill University. This version has been corrected.

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