Mark Lautens is the J.B. Jones distinguished professor at the University of Toronto.
It sounds a bit shady, but I help other people make drugs. I'm a research chemist, doing "basic" or "blue sky" research. My laboratories don't target a specific disease. Instead, we invent faster and better ways for others to make medicines, with a special interest in discovering new chemical reactions that have reduced environmental impact.
I grew up in Hamilton, raised by my mother who worked as a legal secretary. No one in my family had much interest in science. But thanks to an influential teacher and professor, I got excited about chemistry. The research-funding environment supported me doing a PhD and postdoctoral work in the U.S. Then, Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) offered me 10 years of research support that drew me back to Canada from Harvard.
With that flying start, it became a lot easier to develop a top-notch research program in Toronto that has been thriving and well-funded for some 30 years. There are others spread across the country who also contribute to increasing fundamental knowledge.
However, the landscape has gradually yet dramatically changed. Funding in the natural sciences and engineering for senior researchers has flat-lined and the research grants for our best researchers have not changed in 30 years. What worries me more is that a generation of young scientists and scholars are facing unprecedented financial pressures, with small grants and, in the case of health disciplines, very low success rates. This is an enormous waste of talent and potential. It is also likely to do multigenerational damage to innovation in all parts of the Canadian economy.
The reason is simple. The most important outcome of scientific research isn't patents or products. It's people who can think and solve our toughest problems. Along with thousands of researchers in universities and hospitals across Canada, I've been engaged in providing hands-on education and training for the next generation of Canadian scholars and innovators.
More than 100 undergraduates have worked in my labs. Dozens subsequently went to graduate school in chemistry, biology, medicine, or even law. I've also supervised nearly 50 PhDs and another 30 masters' students. More than 90 per cent were Canadians. The majority work in research-intensive companies of different sizes, building wealth for Canada and earning a very good living. Another 80 of my former co-workers were postdoctoral "fellows." Most came from abroad with funding from their home governments. I estimate they brought more than $3-million to spend in Canada in support of Canadian research. Some stayed here, and we got a bargain on top-tier talent.
Today, however, my young colleagues face unprecedented funding obstacles. Here's a concrete example: My first research grant was just shy of $35,000 a year. Fast forward 28 years: Our department hired an excellent new colleague, educated at the University of Ottawa, MIT and Oxford – and her starting grant was identical to mine back in 1987. Meanwhile, student stipends have doubled, and supplies and equipment have greatly increased in cost. Her grant will barely support one graduate student.
How can my colleague compete and win when researchers in the best-funded countries – such as Germany and Switzerland, not to mention recent powerhouses such as China and Singapore – operate on a much larger scale. Not only are they able to produce more results, they can educate larger numbers of students and trainees who are then able to help those countries sustain their knowledge-based industries and grow their GDPs.
How did Canada fall behind? For a decade, funding failed to keep pace with inflation and in addition, "new" money was directed preferentially by successive federal governments to fund applied research in pre-specified areas. Applied research is essential, but trying to predict "the next big thing" is a mug's game.
Consider this: Stem cells were discovered in the 1960s and are only now being used in next-generation therapies. Genetics began as a way of understanding how traits were handed down from parents and took decades to bear fruit in personalized medicine and gene editing. Chemical reactions discovered 20 years ago are just now being used to make our latest generation of medicines in cost and environmentally effective ways. And artificial intelligence was of academic interest for decades and now is impacting all aspects of our lives.
Meanwhile, the metrics are clear. Canada is losing ground in science relative to peer nations. If we want to educate brilliant young people who will move this country forward, we need to give them environments where they can learn to solve hard problems – in basic science and, yes, a range of other disciplines. That can only happen if the government of Canada makes a major investment in basic research in general, and supports our most promising younger researchers and our trainees in particular.
We simply cannot succeed as a society if we are constantly paying a premium for knowledge-based products and services created in other countries.