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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 ...

Benefactors have played a big role in science and medicine at least as far back as the Renaissance and those on the receiving end say they are grateful to have the freedom charity can buy.

Instead of spending weeks writing up grant applications and waiting months to find out if they have been approved, “I can just move forward,” says Stephen Scherer, director of the Toronto Centre for Applied Genomics, which focuses on autism and human-genome research.

At Dr. Scherer's $20-million centre, connected to the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children, philanthropy accounts for 5 to 10 per cent of his budget – including “hundreds of thousands” a year for 10 years from an anonymous donor, money from Canadian businessman Galen Weston, whose donation came after he and Dr. Scherer hit it off at the bar during an autism event, and $2-million from the family of tech billionaire Lee Lau.

“A lot of the experiments we've done, experiments that really led to new discoveries, we couldn't have done without [philanthropy]”

Not all researchers are as fortunate at earning the favour of philanthropists and donations do not always go to those most deserving, says Janet Rossant, chief of research at the Hospital for Sick Children. “We try to make sure it does, but that's not always possible,” says Dr. Rossant, a leading stem-cell researcher. “Let's say people want to give to Dr. X – he has the patients, he knows the families, he has the connections, and so [the donors]might say, ‘We're only giving to Dr. X.' Now Dr. X may be fantastic, but he may not be.”

As well, certain conditions, tend to get smaller pieces of the philanthropic pie. Peter St. George-Hyslop, a leading Alzheimer's researcher with labs at the universities of Toronto and Cambridge, notes that “people give for children, cancer, AIDS, heart disease, all good things. But there are other diseases that are less sexy in the public eye, osteoporosis, arthritis or Alzheimer's, … that don't get enough support from the donor pool.”

About half the donations the Hospital for Sick Children receives are restricted, or earmarked, for specific projects and part of the challenge, Dr. Rossant says, is persuading donors to allow the money to be used broadly.

But in the age of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where private interests set the health agenda on a global scale, donors also have higher expectations of what their money should buy. They are less likely to have inherited their wealth and more likely to be younger, particularly in Western Canada, and the more they give, the more input they expect to have over how their money is spent.

“Some of the most involved donors, who contribute the most, come with a wanting to drive the system,” Dr. Rossant says. “And it shouldn't be: ‘Oh give us your money and go away.' The institution does want their involvement – their input could be valuable and it can be awkward [to limit it]because the more involved the donor feels, the more likely they are to give again. It is the biggest balancing act,” she says.

Terry Burton, the Windsor-based publisher of the Major Gift Resource Centre, who has researched trends related to fundraising for 25 years, says it is history that has partly shifted donor attitudes: “The non-profit sector doesn't have the greatest track record of doing what they said they were going to do with the money.”

Rob and Cheryl McEwen have given more than $20-million for stem-cell research and apply corporate-style goals in the Toronto labs they fund. Scientists at the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine are working within a two-year time frame to put their research on the road to the clinic, a plan the centre dubs an “Accelerated Discovery Initiative.”

Mr. McEwen, chairman and chief executive officer of U.S. Gold Corporation, articulated their approach in a Globe and Mail commentary this year: “I believe there exists a mindset and culture that allows hospitals, research institutes and laboratories to say: ‘Thanks very much for your donation … and we'll get back to you in 15 years.'”


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