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The federal government is phasing out a 30-year-old funding program known for connecting teams of scientists across Canada and encouraging them to work together in key areas of biomedical and environmental research, The Globe and Mail has learned.

On Thursday, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan is expected to reveal that the government will eventually discontinue supporting the entities that are collectively known in Canada’s research landscape as Networks of Centres of Excellence. The category includes some high-profile Canadian science organizations, such as the clinically oriented Stem Cell Network as well as ArcticNet, which provides access for researchers to work aboard the Canadian research icebreaker, Amundsen.

The transition is to take place over the next three years with some eligible networks being invited to apply for a three-year renewal rather than the usual five-year cycle, a spokesperson for the minister confirmed.

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The news comes as Ms. Duncan is preparing to announce another set of funding streams that will focus on exploratory, multidisciplinary and international research, but which is set up to allocate money directly to individual projects and scientists rather than through networks.

The change means that at least some existing networks face the prospect of imminent elimination unless an alternative funding mechanism is created.

Inaugurated in 1989, the networks became a permanent feature of science funding in Canada in 1997, as old networks were succeeded by new ones representing different specialties. Last year, an expert panel review said the roughly $65-million-a-year program “continues to be well regarded” but expressed concern that it was better suited to translating or commercializing knowledge than generating new knowledge – a criticism the networks dispute.

Cate Murray, executive director of the Stem Cell Network, was among those who said that by abandoning the network model, the government may be jeopardizing Canada’s capacity in research areas that are moving quickly and that benefit from co-ordination and knowledge sharing across diverse teams.

“It’s been an important tool … and one that other nations are using as a model to support research that has a view to the market or clinic,” she said, noting that the network has supported 170 research teams since it was established in 2001 to leverage an area of biomedical research in which Canada was an important early player.

“It made my career,” said Freda Miller, a researcher at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children who has since become known internationally for her work with stem cells as applied to the study of brain development.

“To be internationally competitive at this time and space, you need to have many different scientists working together," Dr. Miller said.“ Across Canada, what we have instead, are small pockets of people doing excellent research who don’t have a big community."

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Without entities such as the Stem Cell Network, she said, “what you risk is throwing out a mechanism that allows them to have that community.”

Other networks that are currently midway though their five-year funding cycles have not been given specific options for where they may turn when their money runs out.

“We have not heard officially what they are going to do with us,” said John Bell, a researcher at the Ottawa Hospital and the scientific director of BioCanRx, a four-year-old network that has been working to fast-track research and clinical trials in the breakthrough area of cancer immunotherapy in Canada.

He said that before this week, he was confident that BioCanRx would reach its potential lifetime of 15 years provided that it continued to demonstrate its value after each five-year cycle. He called the news that the network model was being abandoned “a tragedy."

Leah Braithwaite, who heads up the Quebec-based ArcticNet, stressed that her network has been successful in bringing in partners, both within Canada and internationally, leading the federal government to expand its investment several times over.

“The program has been such a catalyst for Arctic science in Canada,” she said. “We are hopeful that there will be opportunities to continue to fund Canadian research in that way.”

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