Federal fund pinch puts research at risk

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

UBC scientists are asking the public to join them in a letter-writing campaign aimed at increasing federal funding for medical research.

Cuts to medical research funding through the federal Medical Research Council (MRC) have had a significant impact at UBC. More than 30 new UBC projects of sufficient calibre to have been funded last year received no monies this year.

And with limited budgets, only 50 per cent or fewer grant holders are offered funding renewals. Researchers who have lost funding can apply to other granting agencies, however the time delay can mean that the opportunity for a UBC discovery is lost.

"We're having to throw out accomplishments in mid-stream," says Biochemistry Dept. Head George Mackie, MRC's regional director who also serves on a peer review committee for biochemistry and molecular biology research.

Budgets at the MRC have been reduced by 13 per cent since 1994, with $10 million expected to come off the base budget's bottom line in 1998, according to Dr. Henry Friesen, director of the MRC. Canada now invests less money in health research than the other six leading industrialized nations in the G7.

Janet Werker, associate vice-president, Research, joins Mackie in urging fellow scientists, students and research administrators to write to federal health, finance and industry ministers.

"An important part of this grant funding is the provision of adequate money for supporting graduate students, post doctoral fellows, and promising undergraduates to ensure the continuation of high calibre research" says Werker.

Ten UBC scientists were unable to obtain personnel awards that supplement or provide the income for top researchers this year, although in past years they would have qualified, Mackie says.

There is also direct job loss for research technicians and associates as projects are abandoned or reduced, harming the university's ability to train new scientists, he adds.

Budget reductions often mean only established researchers obtain funding and new investigators can have difficulty gaining a foothold.

"The effect is that we're counter-selecting against young risk-taking researchers," says Mackie. "Yet these are the people we will need in the future."

Students are discouraged by the current research climate, he says, and many are moving away from academic research.

Also, attracting faculty to an uncertain research environment is difficult and many investigators opt to work in other countries.

"Health research in Canada is hurting," Mackie says. "It's time we bring our spending on health care research into line with the efforts of our competitors."

Mackie points out that organ transplants, the development of the polio vaccine and cancer therapies are areas where Canadian scientists have made major contributions.

In the last 12 years, UBC research has created 71 spin-off companies, employing close to 1,450 people and attracting more than $630 million in private investment.

Those wishing to voice their concerns about reduced funding for medical research are encouraged to contact their member of Parliament or the ministers of Finance, Health or Industry before the end of January.