Canada’s premier agency for funding research into genomics – which deals with the analysis and functioning of entire DNA sequences in humans and other organisms – is expected to announce a $30-million program Monday that dovetails with the federal government’s emphasis on science that delivers concrete benefits.
Genome Canada is opening its purse strings to boost industry investment in science and speed the flow of ideas from university labs to practical applications. Research groups will be able to access up to $6-million per project, provided they have an outside partner or “user” of the resulting research, which can include companies, foundations or other branches of government.
According to the guidelines of the new program, collaborators will be required to contribute $2 to every $1 provided by Genome Canada. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Pierre Meulien, Genome Canada’s president and CEO, said the kind of science the program will fund will be “driven very much by a real need from the user, and the user will have to put skin in the game.”
The Harper government has called for more “targeted” or applied science to address a long-standing gap in Canada’s private-sector investment in research and development. But other initiatives in this direction, including a recent announcement that the National Research Council will be restructured to better support Canadian industry, have been criticized by those who say the flow of federal research dollars has shifted too far from basic science.
Dr. Meulien said a balanced approach to science funding is necessary for Canada's long-term success, but he added that the fruits of basic research can be more effectively applied for socioeconomic gain. “This is our attempt to pull some of the amazing knowledge and tool development we’ve been investing in for the last decade or more and get it out of academia and into use.”
In addition to the new partnership program, Genome Canada will announce $29-million in support for five genomics facilities across the country that it has been funding for some time.
Among them is the British Columbia Cancer Centre, which sequenced the SARS virus genome in 2003, and the Centre for Applied Genomics at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, which in 2010 published genetic variants associated with autism. Such work demonstrates how Canada has “leap-frogged ahead” in its international standing in the field since Genome Canada was established, said Steven Scherer, director of the Toronto centre.
Established in 2000, Genome Canada is the federal government's primary conduit for funding research in genomics. It has distributed more than $900-million in grants during its first decade of operation on a dollar-for-dollar matching basis with other funding sources. In the aftermath of the U.S.-led Human Genome Project, this has significantly boosted Canada's presence in genomics, allowing it to do some catching up in a fast-moving and crucial area of science.
Dr. Meulien said the new partnership program would help develop Canada’s genomics expertise in areas beyond the health sector, including natural-resource-based industries such as forestry, energy and mining. “I believe that marriage can give rise to amazing innovation and productivity gains for Canada,” he said.
Soheil Asgarpour, president of Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada, which promotes fossil-fuel-related research and development, said that genomics was one of the areas where his industry was looking to develop “breakthrough technologies.”
Such technologies might include engineering microbes to remove hydrogen sulphide from “sour” natural gas or to facilitate environmental cleanup, he said.
“From three thousand raw ideas we get one technology,” Dr. Asgarpour added. “That’s why we think collaboration is essential.”
In the health sector, Dr. Scherer noted companies that develop and sell diagnostic tools are among those that stand to benefit from the new partnership program. He added that applied research is part of Genome Canada’s mandate through Industry Canada and he encouraged fellow scientists to apply for the funding.
“As a taxpayer and someone who might get sick one day, I hope they make some big discoveries,” he added.