What does the global pandemic mean for health research funding in Canada?
Jasleen Grewal, Communications, Education & Outreach editor
The pandemic has placed unique demands on research efforts at universities and healthcare institutions around the world. In Canada, efforts have ramped up to support rapid testing for COVID-19 infections and create a vaccine. The Trudeau government has acted quickly to provide much needed funding support for these endeavours, and a significant number of taxpayer dollars are being directed towards COVID-19 research. But how does the government fund healthcare research in Canada? And how will COVID-19 impact the research landscape in our country?
How is scientific research funded?
Globally, most scientific research is funded through federal initiatives, non-profit organizations, and companies that undertake research and development. In Canada, federal funding for scientific research is provided in two main ways – through the government’s tri-agencies, and through third-party organizations.
The Canadian government’s tri-agencies support federal research priorities for the social sciences (SSHRC), natural sciences and engineering (NSERC), and health (CIHR). These agencies solicit applications from scientists in different research areas, and select which applications to fund based on peer reviews and internal guidelines. The federal government also provides funding through third-party entities in the private sector. The most well-known examples include the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and Genome Canada, both non-profit organizations that invest in research endeavours at Canadian educational institutions and hospitals.
Funding scientific research is important. Applied scientific research, geared towards solving practical issues such as deadly diseases and outbreaks, can stimulate the economy through technological advancements, job creation, and life-saving discoveries. Basic research, which investigates the theoretical principles behind observations, supports the goals of applied science – we can only solve a real world problem if we understand its complexities. However, funding has historically been biased towards applied research due to its immediate practical impact.
Which funding programs support COVID-19 research in Canada?
The Canadian government has over $1 billion in its COVID-19 Response Fund. It is estimated that more than 30% of this will be invested in COVID-19 research. A number of grants have been launched through CIHR, focusing on accelerated development, testing, and implementation of approaches to control the spread of COVID-19. Linkage tools to encourage collaboration on COVID-19 research have also been developed.
Through the Strategic Innovation Fund’s COVID-19 stream, Canadian companies like Abcellera and Medicago have been supported to develop treatment options for COVID-19, and others like BlueDot have been tapped to model and monitor disease spread. Funding distributed via CFI and Genome Canada has added millions in research funds to the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization and initiated coordinated response programs across the nation’s Genome Centres and public health labs.
How has COVID-19 changed scientific research in Canada?
A 2017 review found that scientific funding was becoming more restrictive and commercial, negatively impacting Canadian contributions to basic research discoveries worldwide. This imbalance in funding priorities is only expected to deepen as COVID-19 further pushes funding to emphasize applicability without balancing this with the need to fund basic research. Even among the funded COVID-19 projects, support for basic research is scarce. Only one among the recent 49 COVID-19 research projects funded by CIHR focuses on basic research.
What about all the non-COVID healthcare research that was previously federally funded? Among the leading causes of death in Canada in 2019, cancer, heart disease, and cerebrovascular diseases are the top 3. But currently, many cancer research labs across Canada are closed and CIHR’s Institute of Cancer Research delayed its upcoming funding competition as it diverts efforts to delivering funding to COVID-19 research. CIHR’s Circulatory and Respiratory Health Institute has directed funds to understanding clotting patterns in COVID-19 infected patients, but it is unclear how these changes will impact non-COVID research in this area.
CIHR’s spring competition for funding health research projects also faced several administrative hurdles, eliciting widespread protest from the scientific community, and was briefly closed before being re-opened to ensure continued support to essential areas of health research besides COVID-19. 31 million of the 275 million dollars allocated for CIHR project grants in 2020 will be redirected towards COVID-19 research, significantly reducing funding available for other health conditions.
Non-federally funded charities that fund health research have also been impacted. The Canadian Cancer Society laid off 350 staff in June 2020, and is expecting an $80-100 million drop in revenue this year alone, as a result of fewer donations and reduced fundraising. The Heart and Stroke Foundation, which fundraises millions of dollars for research each year, doubts their ability to fund research awards in 2021.
Where does that leave us?
Science funding is fraught with many challenges. CIHR’s National Health Expenditure Trends from 2019 indicated that while health spending has gone up from ~9% of GDP in 2000 to ~12% in 2019, only 7% of total public health expenditure is actually spent on health research. Since 2000, healthcare research funding awarded through CIHR has become increasingly imbalanced, with only 15% of researchers who applied receiving grants in 2018, compared to nearly 42% in 2000.
We are in unprecedented times, facing a global pandemic that may stretch on for years yet. Science and research are our main weapons for emerging from this fight victorious, but changing priorities for financial support have magnified funding inequities in other areas of healthcare and uncovered room for reforms in our funding strategies for healthcare research. The path forward may not be clear immediately, but as we rebuild from this crisis, we have the opportunity to listen to our scientists and reimagine a better support structure for them in Canada.