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Opinion Trudeau wants Canada to be a global leader in science. So why is he ending a successful, innovative program?

Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan makes an announcement in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ont., on Tuesday, June 19, 2018.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Michael Rudnicki is the scientific director of the Stem Cell Network and the director of the Regenerative Medicine Program at the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research at the Ottawa Hospital.

The Globe and Mail recently reported a concerning decision made by the Trudeau government: Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan announced, with very little fanfare, explanation or evidence, the move to cancel one of the most successful science initiatives in the past 30 years.

Ottawa is set to eliminate funding for its Networks Centres of Excellence (NCE) program, which would end world-renowned scientific networks and the research, researchers and trainees they support. This is a widely admired program with a stellar track record of supporting innovative research on its way to the market or clinic.

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The NCE program enabled nation-building across our vast country by bringing researchers out of their labs and institutions to jointly tackle some of the most pressing science issues of our time. Its loss means we now have a significant gap for moving research forward. A “valley of death” has been created as there no longer exists a mechanism to support the translation of discoveries into practical applications. How could this have happened?

In the case of Canada’s Stem Cell Network, which acts as a catalyst for the translation of stem cell research into clinical applications, commercial products and public policy, it signifies the potential end of government investment in ground-breaking research that is fueling regenerative medicine. Along with it comes the loss of matching investment from industry, charities and research institutions from across Canada and abroad. At a time when the cost of chronic disease, a staggering $190-billion per year, continues to grow, can we afford to walk away from a field that is poised to become the singularly dominant health field of our time?

Canada has been at the forefront of global stem cell research from the beginning. Canadian doctors James Till and Ernest McCulloch proved the existence of stem cells in the early ’60s and are recognized as the Fathers of Stem Cell Science. Since then, Canada’s contribution has been second to none uniting science, innovation and healthcare with a record of incubating global scientific leaders. For example, Dr. Janet Rossant is a global leader in developmental and stem cell biology; Dr. Connie Eaves is an international authority on the use of stem cells for treating leukemia and understanding the role they play in breast cancer; Dr. Freda Miller holds the Canada Research Chair in Developmental Neurobiology and studies how stem cells can be used for repair of the nervous system and the brain.

These women have set the standard for excellence and young researchers from around the world come to learn from them and work within their labs. Minister Duncan has stated that funding women, early career scientists and trainees is a priority for her government; yet the decision to end the NCE program will negatively affect the next generation who count on the hands-on training and networking that comes with being part of a national research network.

For 17 years, Canada’s Stem Cell Network has built a diverse and collaborative network of investigators at all career stages; it is a jewel in Canada’s health research ecosystem. Today, its investigators are moving forward cutting-edge cell therapies in disease areas such as type 1 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and blindness. Canadians will be the first to benefit from these important advances, but only with federal partnership. We risk discoveries leaving our borders and being developed to the benefit of more ambitious countries. Minister Duncan has traditionally been a champion for regenerative medicine – her support is now needed more than ever.

Regenerative medicine has reached a tipping point where it is at the precipice of being translated into economic prosperity and improved health outcomes for Canadians.

Why would a government, serious about making Canada a global leader in science and innovation, end such a demonstrably successful program and network? Why would a Minister of Science, who has made promoting women and young researchers a priority, cut funding for regenerative medicine, a field where women are global leaders and the next generation of health innovators? These are questions Canadian scientists have been asking. We need answers from the Trudeau government before the benefits of these networks are lost forever.

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