U of S : Communications : OCN : Oct 31, 1997
The problem is twofold. First, there is a lamentable dearth of funding for biomedical research at the federal and provincial level. Second, there appears to be a profound lack of awareness or interest in the problem. It's my contention that Saskatchewan is in clear and present danger of losing its medical research capacity. Premier Romanow has publicly stated that health research is critical, but he asks, "Where will the money come from?" Those of us who do biomedical research are desperate and need to know: "Does anybody care?"
Research money from the Medical Research Council of Canada (MRC), the federal granting agency that supports biomedical research, has declined steadily over the past decade. Currently, researchers at the U of S garner less than $2.27 million, that is, 1.3% of the total MRC funds available. Yet Saskatchewan tax dollars to the federal research agencies make up approximately 3.4% of their budget. Clearly, Saskatchewan is losing out on its fair share of the funding. If this trend continues, there will be no MRC grants and no research dollars in approximately two and a half years.
Far below national standards
Compounding this problem, Saskatchewan's provincial contribution to medical research funding is far below national standards. Our province, on your behalf, invests an embarrassing 0.27% of its health care budget in health research. Although it's difficult to make accurate comparisons, our province invests less than $2 per capita, while our more enlightened neighbours invest $6 to $10 per capita in research. Industry standards are at least a 3% investment in R & D. The National Advisory Board on Science and Technology recommends 1% of health care budgets be invested in health research.
Research enhances the education of doctors and other health care professionals, provides job opportunities for research scientists and technical staff, and promotes an entrepreneurial environment. The presence of a vital biomedical research community also influences research in agriculture, pharmacy, bioscience, and veterinary medicine.
As the only university in the country where the five health science colleges are located on one campus, we have a special role to fulfil in research that spans the traditional disciplines. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be capitalizing on this set of resources.
Biomedical research benefits the province by finding new solutions to health problems and fuels the curiosity-based inquiry that applies new technologies to old conditions. In addition, the best medical specialists tend to cluster around academic centres, where new knowledge is created, tested, and applied.
The recent difficulty we experienced with the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons accreditation in some departments in the College of Medicine, my own among them, attests to the difficulties associated with a progressively fewer number of individuals trying to excel in all aspects of their mission. I believe that the results we received are merely symptoms of a clinical disease. I expect that other manifestations will surface if we continue the misguided philosophy of "doing more with less."
The purely economic benefits of biomedical research to the community are enormous. Approximately 70% of research funds are used to pay salaries for technicians and scientists and to support the educations of fellows and graduate students. The remainder is typically used to buy equipment and supplies from local businesses.
Our best export
The expenditure of these funds produces a fiscal multiplier effect, because more highly trained people means increased tax dollars and increased consumer spending. Our status quo is not working, however, and our best export appears to be highly educated people.
Research also gives businesses developed as a result of basic and clinical developments an advantage. I cannot overstate this concept. Businesses progress and profits arise from investment in basic research. Simply looking around the campus and the University-industry park at Innovation Place attests to the success of investment in agricultural research.
Curiously, there are no biomedical sector companies in the park. Is there a lesson here? Do you believe that you can buy your research results from Toronto and others? If so, you're mistaken. Frankly, I would rather see work coming from Saskatchewan and be on the selling end of my discoveries, rather than trying to buy information from elsewhere at inflated prices.
All of this is not to say that you, the people of Saskatchewan, do not invest in biomedical research. Quite the contrary, you are generous to a fault. You give more money per capita to medical research than any other province in Canada.
So, what's the problem?
We lose twice
Unfortunately, almost all of the money that you give to the "Disease-of-the-Month Club" canvassers for health research ends up supporting research in other provinces. An admittedly unscientific poll of people in my neighborhood attests to the mistaken notion that money given to the door-to-door collectors stays in the province and goes to help the cause célèbre and the medical school. Sadly, this is not true - except for the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Saskatchewan. Compound this exodus of research money with the multiplier effect of those same dollars in Saskatchewan and we lose again, not once, but twice. Again, we must ask: "Does anybody care?"
Our faculty counts among its members several world-class scientists. These individuals are capable of educating your children to world standards, and in some cases, help them to push beyond the envelope. This education loses much of its import if we continue to export the people at the point where their careers (your investment) are beginning to take off.
For example, my last three graduate students, Saskatchewan-born and -raised, have been forced to leave the province to find employment. It seems to me a waste of resources to invest in the education of your children, only to have other provinces reap the benefits of the education that you as taxpayers have so heavily subsidized.
What will it take to reverse this depressing scenario? There is no time for indecision. The crisis is here. I believe that we must open a dialogue of fixed duration to assess whether or not we wish to play the game. If medical research should be a priority to Saskatchewan, an immediate, four-step strategy is required to begin reversal of the trend:
If we choose to remain disadvantaged, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that the status quo is tenable. We should, in good conscience, simply cease the research enterprise and place the funds into the hands of other provinces and universities willing to make the investment. Those of us who wish to remain in the research world will be forced to leave and pursue our work in other institutions.
The bottom line is this: Saskatchewan, as a province, must decide if it's willing to lose its medical research community or if it's willing to make a meaningful investment in medical research.
Or is the contention of the presidents of the "Big 6" Canadian universities that biomedical research should be done only on their campuses correct? Should Saskatchewan even be in the game?
- Dr. Pierson is the director of the Reproductive Biology Research Unit, Obstetrics & Gynecology, College of Medicine.