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James Wright, the chief of surgery at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, in an operating room that was built with funds he raised personally. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
James Wright, the chief of surgery at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, in an operating room that was built with funds he raised personally. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Science for sale: A new kind of donor is transforming medical research Add to ...

It was 15 years ago that Steven Wise changed his charitable ways. The CEO and chairman of the KRG Insurance Group, and head of the KRG Children's Charitable Foundation, had been a regular donor to the Hospital for Sick Children when he found he “had some disagreement with the areas that were being focused on.” He took his concerns to Michael Strofolino, hospital president at the time, and took away a key message: “Those who write the cheque call the shots.”

“If you are walking through emergency and you think it needs an X-ray machine,” Mr. Strofolino told him, “buy an X-ray machine.”

So began Mr. Wise's regular walks through the downtown hospital to see for himself where his money might have the most impact. After he came across kids waiting in the hall for appointments at the burns-and-plastics unit, as if they were on display, he modernized the clinic to include its own waiting room.

“I feel like an investor in the hospital,” says the 56-year-old Mr. Wise, who has donated more than $10-million to various children's charities.



A few years ago, Mr. Wise took a keen interest in autism. He had often heard Stephen Scherer's name as a key scientist trying to solve the genetic mystery behind the neuro-developmental condition and in 2008, Mr. Wise offered to fly him up to his Muskoka cottage. Dr. Scherer decided to drive and it was well worth the trip.

Mr. Wise had expected “a geeky science guy,” but instead he met an easygoing hockey dad. “We became friends,” he says. “I think he's brilliant.” After that meeting, Mr. Wise gave Dr. Scherer's lab $500,000 for autism research.

It was the perfect “blind date” – a euphemism in fundraising circles to describe a first meeting between recipient and potential donor. The foundation works hard to play matchmaker, Dr. Scherer says. Scientists get briefing notes with personal information about a prospect to help them find a connection during conversation, and the foundation people, he says, “are like private detectives,” able to find out if someone has a child or relative with a certain disease, or a personal connection to the hospital.



Governments are taking a lead role in nurturing these relationships. The Canada Foundation for Innovation, which helps to pay for research infrastructure costs, Genome Canada, the national agency that funds large science projects, and the $100-million Canada Brain Research Fund the Conservative government created in April all require researchers and institutions to find private-sector support to gain access to public funds.

For Arthur Schafer, the blossoming romance between philanthropy and public institutions is nothing to celebrate. Director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, Prof. Schafer considers it a marriage born after 40 years of chronic underfunding to universities and hospitals.



“This money doesn't come free,” he argues. “There are always strings, and not just strings, but some pretty heavy clanky chains.”

Most institutions will resist donors' attempts to direct research, he suspects. “But the real danger is that the recipients will want to please these donors, that they will censor themselves to anticipate what the donors would want.

“After all, you want your donors to keep donating, you want them to be happy … so that they will tell their peers or associates over golf, or over lunch or while socializing on the Bridle Path, that you were wonderful to work with.”

New frontier

In Calgary, Dr. Weiss, who has raised more than $100-million in seven years to support brain research at his institute, says discussions around donor influence have barely begun. “There is a broad spectrum around this stuff, in terms of what people might think is acceptable,” he says. “It does happen in Canada that donors have influence – but you wouldn't get many volunteering to say, ‘Hey, yeah, it's happening here.'”

And, he notes, it happens subtly: “If someone comes to you prepared to make a major donation and says, ‘Oh, by the way, we also want this or that,' you might try to work out the details of this or that. But the devil really does get into the details.”

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