The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada plans to spend $300-million over the next 10 years to finance work at 19 research institutions across the country, representing a sea change in the way the foundation has historically handed out grants.
The pledge, which is expected to be formally announced Tuesday, is intended to give institutions the financial stability to think big and attract the brightest in the field of heart disease and stroke. It is one of the largest, long-term commitments to medical research by a private Canadian organization.
In recent years, the foundation has spent an average of $45-million annually funding roughly 1,500 researchers, most of them at the 19 targeted institutions. But those grants typically lasted a year or two, acting like a jobs program that kept researchers afloat before they had to divert attention from their work to apply for the next infusion of cash.
Under the new funding model, researchers would still have to reapply for grant money and their projects would continue to be reviewed for merit by their peers, but the dollars committed to research at their institutions would be guaranteed.
Irfhan Rawji, the past chairman of the foundation's board of directors and an architect of the new funding model, said the pledge will alleviate anxiety among researchers and give their institutions another carrot with which to lure new talent.
"A lot of research questions aren't one- or two-year questions, they're five- and 10-year questions," Mr. Rawji said. "So as long as the quality of science remains, now the stability of funding will be there."
The 19 selected universities and hospitals are from across Canada but are heavily concentrated in Ontario. They include the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Dalhousie University in Halifax, McGill University in Montreal and the University of British Columbia.
While long-term research grants are the exception, there are examples. At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, for instance, five-year grants from the National Institutes of Health have helped the centre assemble a team of investigators that has produced groundbreaking research in prostate cancer.
"There is definitely some validity to this approach," Paul Sabbatini, the centre's deputy physician-in-chief of clinical research, said of long-term funding. "I think it allows for creativity and innovation because people aren't worried about the next funding cycle."
He cautioned, though, that long-term funding needs to be balanced with metrics that monitor productivity and that short-term grants remain vital to progress.
Heart and Stroke's chief executive officer, David Sculthorpe, stressed that the decade-long, $300-million commitment does not mean the foundation will limit its research funding to $30-million annually, or to scientists at the select institutions.
Mr. Sculthorpe cast the commitment as a "floor level," and said the foundation would continue to support projects from outside what it is calling its "Research Leadership Circle." He anticipated maintaining and likely exceeding the $45-million average annual spending on research. The foundation's most recent annual report shows it invested nearly $50.5-million on research in 2012.
"Our goal is to continue to fund research at the healthy rates that we have in the past and increase it," Mr. Sculthorpe said. "We think this initiative helps in both cases because these partner institutions now have the ability to plan and commit to (research) in ways they never were before."
A major impediment to breakthrough discoveries in any field, researchers say, is the reluctance of donors to make long-term commitments to outside-the-box projects because their outcomes are so uncertain. The funding sources, understandably, want results.
"We're very short-sighted in our approach to things because we're looking for outcomes quickly," Andrew Krahn, chief of cardiology at UBC, said of researchers in general. "Some of those game-changers need people to think long-term or be allowed to think about high-risk projects because their viability is not dependent on short-term results."
Dr. Krahn said UBC researchers plan to use the funding to examine genetic factors contributing to sudden death from heart attacks and study new ways to detect and manage irregular heartbeats, a major cause of strokes.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation is one of the wealthiest non-profit organizations in Canada, with net assets of about $153-million and revenue last year of $215-million, according to its 2012 audited financial statements.
Its wealth and new funding model is the culmination of a merger of nine provincial Heart and Stroke foundations in 2011, in which their operations and balance sheets were unified under the national foundation's umbrella.