Opinion: Federal research cuts will erode research capabilities

By Dr. Todd Lowary, GlycoNet Scientific Director

The Canadian research ecosystem works for the well-being of all Canadians. It is founded on multidisciplinary and translational innovation and fuelled by partnerships between a vibrant university research sector and industry.

Politicians have long understood that a national alignment of research priorities helps find concrete solutions to the current and future needs of Canadians. Cross-country research collaboration also allows all provinces, including Alberta, to attract and retain talent and to diversify their economy.

Many believed that Justin Trudeau’s election would propel Canadian sciences and scientific research even further. However, last December, Minister of Science and Sport Kristy Duncan made an announcement that calls the Liberals’ commitment to long-term translational research into question.

For nearly 30 years, networks funded under the National Centres of Excellence (NCE) program have focused resources from the federal government and partner organizations to answer some of Canada’s most critical social and economic challenges.

Funding also helped equip scientists with the skills needed to work across disciplines, enabling them to find solutions to increasingly complex problems in a globalized world. The networks are not only responsible for research breakthroughs; they also contribute to an increase in private-sector investments in research and development.

The NCE program is a shining example of what can be delivered when government, universities, foundations, industry, citizens’ groups and non-government partners work together for the health and advancement of our communities. It is internationally recognized, and even copied around the globe.

The decision to phase out NCEs by 2023 will halt the development of many innovative technologies currently under development in many networks across the country.

To date, questions about what motivated the decision are left unanswered. A government that ran on promises of transparency has failed to provide answers to its research community about this decision. We still await an adequate explanation of what led to the termination of a program that has been supported by politicians of all stripes since its creation under the Mulroney government.

This decision directly impacts Edmonton and Alberta because one of the NCEs, the Canadian Glycomics Network (GlycoNet), is headquartered at the University of Alberta.

Research in glycomics — the study of the role of carbohydrates in biology and, in particular, human health — is currently exploding worldwide, as is the translation of that research into tangible benefits. Alberta has long recognized the socio-economic benefits of retaining international leadership of glycomics research in the province.

The provincial government, through Alberta Innovates and predecessor organizations, invested in creating the Alberta Glycomics Centre in 2002. This world-class group cemented Edmonton’s place as a world leader in glycomics research and allowed a federal initiative — GlycoNet — to be born.

The demise of the NCE program now endangers Alberta’s ability to retain that leadership and to compete globally.

GlycoNet launched in 2015 and now includes 140 research groups across 31 Canadian research organizations. Their research touches critical human-health issues including heart disease, diabetes, infectious diseases, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Twenty of these groups are at three Alberta universities.

In just over three years, GlycoNet-funded research has led to the creation of three Alberta-based companies. One, PanTHERA CryoSolutions, is developing novel cryoprotectant agents for cells and blood products, an estimated market of US$4 billion, and one that is expected to grow as stem cell-based therapies become more prominent.

Without the NCE program, what will fill the void? The government points to a new program — The New Frontiers in Research Fund. The amounts allotted by the new program are too short-term and too small for researchers to tackle critical challenges in a meaningful way.

What is even more disturbing is that the announced program does not capitalize on the network-driven approach that is critical for finding concrete solutions to complex problems.

GlycoNet is committed to finding innovative solutions to unmet medical needs while helping grow, and diversify Alberta’s and Canada’s economy. However, our task has been made significantly harder by the federal government’s unfortunate decision to discontinue a program that has proven its value to Canada’s economy and health over the past 30 years.

We hope the federal government will offer an appropriate funding alternative to NCEs. The Canadian research ecosystem and knowledge-driven economy depend on the research conducted by NCEs and the innovations they generate.

This article originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal on February 5, 2019: https://edmontonjournal.com/opinion/columnists/opinion-trudeaus-research-cuts-will-hurt-albertas-economy

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