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Can Canada Keep Up?

January 27, 2010

China has surpassed all countries but the US in research output, and should move into the top position within the next decade, according to a ThomsonReuters analysis. India is also on the move, and will be on par with G8 nations within five years. These population giants are benefiting from strong and growing economies, an increasingly educated populace, and massive investments by governments strongly committed to competing internationally in research.

On the other hand, Russia – once a world-leader in research – has witnessed its research infrastructure crumble and its best people leave, largely due to poor economics and weak policy support. Russian research output now trails both China and India (as well as Canada), and is roughly on par with the Netherlands, a severe fall from grace for a former powerhouse in fields such as physics, space science, and chemistry. ThomsonReuters blames severe underfunding, a lack of public respect for science, poor policies, and a massive brain drain as the primary causes.

So here we see the tale of two trajectories, and though there are elements of a chicken-and-egg conundrum, it seems clear that a strong and vibrant economy is related to strong and vibrant research culture. Canada is currently comfortably among world leaders in research, but are we so sure we’re going to stay there? How do we ensure our future competitiveness?

In addition to providing stable and robust research funding, a recent study suggests how to maximize our research investment. This study compared the output of comparable American researchers who had been funded by either project-based National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding grants or by people-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grants (a detailed summary of the project and results can be found at the MaRS blog). The study found that those investigators who were receiving the guaranteed, stable funding of a HHMI grant, whose renewal doesn’t depend directly on research outcomes, generated “high-impact papers” at more than double the rate of similarly-accomplished NIH-funded scientists. It also determined that the HHMI researchers pursued research in more novel and innovative directions than NIH-funded researchers, whose projects were generally more conservative.

This work suggests that tying research funds to outcomes is counter-productive, that true innovation – game-changing innovation – occurs when our scientists are given the freedom to explore and experiment in place of simply delivering sufficient incremental change to guarantee another round of funding. Funding commercially-viable research may produce marginally better widgets, but if we actually want ‘innovation’, we need to give the innovators room to innovate.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    January 27, 2010 16:46

    The Wellcome Trust has just adopted the HHMI model after realising that its mega-projects were severely underperforming and leading to a generation of trainees who shared authorship with 50 others. CIHR is investigating new ways to conduct research and recognizes that investigator productivity is hampered by too much grant writing which also leads to artificial Chinese walls between projects that must stand independently. Most research is not like this. Fund researchers based on their programs and track record. Fund new researchers based on their promise. HHMI used to fund Canadian investigators through its scholarship program that recently was folded (grants were only $80,000 or so, not the $1-2 million awarded per year in the US). It would be trivial to determine whether those investments paid off compared with non-HHMI peers.

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