Arthur Kornberg, the Nobel laureate biochemist, described basic research as “the province of the individual investigator and remains the lifeline of medicine.” He could have added that it is the foundation for therapeutics and technologies that change the course of history.
The importance of basic science research to human health and economic prosperity was demonstrated most recently and rather powerfully in the dramatic development of vaccines for COVID-19. While these remarkable therapies appeared in a short year, they emanated from more than a quarter-century of basic science research. It is essential that all Canadians, including parliamentarians, understand that without commitment to growing the basic science enterprise, the technology that saves lives and drives economies will not emerge.
In Canada, funding for investigator-driven basic-science research includes investment in infrastructure (such as university-based laboratories) as well as grants to individual investigators to support their curiosity-directed investigations. These grants are distributed on merit, using an independent competition driven by peer review. It is this combination of institutional and individual support that is the “secret sauce” that propels the search for knowledge and results in innovative and needed therapeutics. The federal government supports both of these essential components, through the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and granting councils such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
For example, COVID-19 vaccines trace back to a graduate student, Ingmar Hoerr, who, in the 1990s, injected mRNA into mice and found, to his surprise, that the animals could make the protein encoded by the RNA. This discovery was completely unexpected and challenged contemporary dogma, yet it led to the innovative vaccines of today. Little wonder that a recent paper tracing the origins of novel drugs described basic research “as the engine of an innovation ecosystem.”
As Canada moves into the post-pandemic era, we must all remember the vital connections among basic research, the health of individuals and public health. Additionally, we must recognize that in today’s global knowledge economy and interconnected world, Canada’s economic welfare also depends on increasing basic research and development at home. Sadly, it is precisely in the need to grow and better fund the basic science research enterprise that Canada is falling behind.
Studies by economists and management professors alike have shown that innovative pharma and biotech congregate in selected hubs, such as Boston’s Route 128 and Cambridge near MIT – where Shire Pharmaceuticals Group set up shop after it bought the Canadian jewel Biochem Pharma – and San Francisco and surroundings, the home of Genentech and Amgen. These locales share common features such as high degrees of personal connectivity, a cosmopolitan cultural environment and a rich supply of skilled workers – all dependent on prestigious universities and other high-quality public and private institutions.
University strength is essential for private-sector research investments – the most recent example being Merck London with its $1.32 billion, 220,000-square-foot research facility in central London’s “Knowledge Quarter” which will eventually host 800 employees. Why there? Vice-president and head of discovery research in the U.K. Fiona Marshall responded simply: “We are excited about being close to world-leading universities and hospitals in London – many with whom we already collaborate.”
Increasing investments in Canada’s university infrastructure can spur regional economic development across the entire country. Increasing the amount of grant funding for basic science research is equally essential. High-paying employment will follow both Canadian and international investments not only in biomedical research to provide drugs and prevent pandemics but also to respond to the looming crises resulting from global warming — where basic science is the foundation on which novel solutions will be built.
Intelligent investments in infrastructure and grants will encourage the further growth and development of these sectors, helping ensure more and better career opportunities and the competitive salaries that Canada needs to recruit and nurture the next generation of researchers in multiple science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Up-to-date infrastructure and funds to support scientists will make Canada a magnet for talent. This will help us not only find the solutions for the challenges of today but will help us build the new economy of tomorrow.
Our governments and political leaders must embrace and deliver those bold and necessary investments in basic science research that can build better futures for all Canadians.