As a schoolboy, Jim Woodgett watched road workers spend two weeks digging up part of the road in front of his home in Quorn, in central England, to install reflectors in the road. Why, the inquisitive 10-year-old wondered, did they not simply install the reflectors on a strip and lay it down on the road?
With his mother's encouragement, he entered the idea in a BBC "Inventor of the Year" competition and won a runner-up prize: Two guineas and a scale-model of his invention, complete with a toy truck.
"I was a lot more interested in the truck than the money," Dr. Woodgett says with a laugh.
To this day, the 54-year-old retains that fascination with problem-solving and discovery, a trait that has led him to become a leading molecular biologist.
But these days, he has to pay a lot more attention to the money because of his other role, scientific director of the Toronto-based Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, a world-renowned laboratory with a budget in excess of $100-million a year.
Biomedical research is a tough business at the best of times, but the economic downturn of 2009 took a big bite out of funding. Competition for research dollars has become more fierce, and funders have become more demanding and impatient about seeing quick results for the dollars they still invest.
"Our return on investment is measured in decades, not months," Dr. Woodgett says. "It's an investment in the future and that can be a tough sell."
Most scientists bristle at the notion of the research enterprise being a business – it's more of a calling, to use a cliché – but labs depend on entrepreneurship and venture capital (or, more precisely, venture philanthropy) to be successful.
The Lunenfeld is home to 34 principal investigators, 15 associate scientists, and 215 trainees.
"They're all little entrepreneurs and their products are bold ideas," Dr. Woodgett says. "What we try to be is an incubator so the ideas can thrive."
The institute, located at Mount Sinai Hospital in downtown Toronto, has an annual budget of about $103-million. About 85 per cent of the money comes from grants from funding bodies, such as the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) and the remaining 15 per cent from the Mount Sinai Foundation.
The lab is known around the world for its research on how cells communicate, right down to the level of neurons and synapses.
The belief is that many major diseases – cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's – have a common cause: the disruption of the lines of communication between cells. If scientists can figure out that "language" and then alter it, the implications would be vast for treatment and cures.
This is not just fanciful theory: Unravelling the signalling pathways of one type of cancer led to the development of Gleevec, a drug that can cure a rare form of cancer called CML (chronic myeloid leukemia).
The competition for grants is intense, bureaucratic and time consuming. It's the bane of many a scientist's existence, and keeps the director up at night with worry.
"Right now, it's a lottery," Dr. Woodgett says over lunch at à la Carte bistro, located in the Gardiner Museum in downtown Toronto. "We have a lot of brilliant young investigators but I worry they won't get a chance."
For lunch, the health-conscious doctor opts for salad and salmon. When the waiter offers dessert, a long discussion ensues as Dr. Woodgett explains, playfully, the impact of excess sugar on the body.
After a bit of banter, the waiter says: "So we're going to skip the poison course today, I guess? How about coffee?" (Coffee is okay. Black.)
The CIHR, the country's premiere funder of biomedical research, doles out a little less than $1-billion in grants annually. Its U.S. counterpart, the National Institutes of Health, distributes $30-billion (U.S.) – three times more per capita.
The success rate of researchers who apply for CIHR funding is a mere 15 per cent. It is a bit higher for the myriad of other institutions – federal, provincial and charitable – that pull in roughly another $1.5-billion (Canadian) available annually.
"Of course, there's never enough money," Dr. Woodgett says. "But it's not just about money. We need to consolidate and streamline the bureaucracy, to tear down the picket fences around each funding organization."
In fact, he has, for years, been highly critical of how Canada funds biomedical research. At the Canadian Science Policy Forum last year, Dr. Woodgett said: "While the practice of science is often mysterious and beguiling, the methodology by which science is funded is positively Rube Goldbergian." As a well-established and well-funded scientist he feels an obligation to speak out on behalf of the younger generation.
"When I started out, it was relatively easy to start a research career, but today it's virtually impossible," he says.
There is no simple answer. But Dr. Woodgett believes there should be less paperwork, more emphasis on interdisciplinary research and a greater investment in scientific research if Canada wants to remain competitive globally.
Dr. Woodgett studied biochemistry at the University of York in the United Kingdom, after which he pursued graduate studies at the University of Dundee in Scotland and post-graduate work at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. He met his wife, Caroline, while studying in Dundee. She was a dietician working as a lab technician. At the Salk Institute, they co-authored a paper together, the ultimate expression of love among science geeks.
After his U.S. stint, Dr. Woodgett returned to work at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in Middlesex, England, where he ran his own lab from 1987 to 1992. The upside was that the lab had "hard money," meaning a fixed budget, so he could spend all his time doing research, not writing grant proposals. The downside is that it was hard to grow and explore new areas of research.
So, in 1992, Dr. Woodgett made the leap to Canada, where researchers tend to rely on "soft money," competing for grants from a variety of funding agencies. He was drawn to Canada's combination of the entrepreneurial spirit found in U.S. science, as well as the collegiality of European science – a nice middle ground.
It was a brutal landing, for personal rather than professional reasons. Dr. Woodgett's son Justin, who was four at the time, was feeling ill before boarding the plane in London and deteriorated upon arriving in Toronto. He was rushed to the Hospital for Sick Children, where doctors discovered that he was suffering from hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS, which is commonly known as hamburger disease), an illness that can destroy the kidneys and be fatal.
"The care was amazing. They saved his life," Dr. Woodgett recalls.
Thankfully, the new job was less dramatic. He was hired as an associate professor at the Ontario Cancer Institute at Princess Margaret Hospital.
Subsequently, he was appointed head of the division of experimental therapeutics, and director of the Microarray Centre at University Health Network. He moved to the Lunenfeld as its director in 2005.
One of the characteristics of being director of a research institute, Dr. Woodgett says, is that he is a peer rather than a boss. His administrative office and lab are side-by-side, and he spends as much time as he can in the latter. "Our administrative structure is flat – there's not much hierarchy."
At the outset of lunch, the researcher apologized for looking a bit haggard. It was CIHR grant application deadline day, and he had just spent the weekend buried in last-minute paperwork. Dr. Woodgett says he wasn't alone though – the lab is busy all the time.
For example, students and trainees who are culturing cells have to check on them every day, without fail.
"Science is fascinating but there's also lots of monotony and drudgery and, of course, a lot of things that don't work. But that's good. That's how we learn, from our failures."
Neither of his children opted for careers in science – "likely because they saw the hours and how I was on the road a lot." For scientists, conferences are a mainstay, because that is where ideas are tested and exchanged.
Most of his administrative tasks involve wooing top-notch scientists – a pretty easy task at the Lunenfeld, which is ranked as one of the top 10 biomedical research institutes in the world – and raising money through grants and from donors, which is considerably more difficult.
One of the quirks of the Canadian approach to research funding is that grants don't pay scientists' salaries, or overhead and administration. The money for day-to-day operations has to be raised privately. "The public probably doesn't understand how important philanthropy is to Canadian science," Dr. Woodgett says.
The Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute was established in 1985 thanks to a generous donation from the late Samuel Lunenfeld. Last year, Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., gave an additional $35-million to the institute and his name was added to the marquee (with the blessing of the Lunenfeld family, it should be noted).
The gift was designed to be a magnet for further giving, with $15-million earmarked to attract matching funding to establish 15 research chairs.
Raising money is not easy, but is greatly aided by the institute's global reputation. Its research team featured Tony Pawson, one of the world's most decorated scientists (and considered a heavy favourite for a Nobel Prize) until his sudden death last year.
But Dr. Woodgett considers other types of outreach, such as the SciHigh program, which sees 5,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12 pass through the labs each year, just as important.
"It's important for kids to see science up-close. We need to inspire the next generation."
One of Dr. Woodgett's passions is science communication. Unlike many scientists, he is active on social media such as Twitter – not surprisingly, he was an early adopter, joining in 2010 – and maintains his childlike fascination.
One of the things that always surprises the young people who pass through the Lunenfeld – aside from the multimillion dollar microscopes – is the Lego creations in the director's office, which include scale models of the leaning tower of Pisa and the Guggenheim Museum.
"I have to admit that, even at my age, I still love Lego," Dr. Woodgett says. In fact, he covets a set of Lego Academics, a limited-edition (and impossible to get) set of female scientists, but settles for following the Twitter account @LegoAcademics.
Tinkering, whether it's with road reflectors, Lego or neurons, is also about problem-solving and discovery, and that has become his life-long pursuit.
"The reason to get into science is because it gives you the ability to imagine things that don't exist and see the beauty in things that do exist."
The 54-year-old is married to Caroline; they have two grown children, Jennifer and Justin
Gardening, walking, "just being in nature."
Thoughts on science
"Biology can be beautiful. You can peer into a microscope and see art every day."
"Everyone should have some scientific background – an ethos of wondering and questioning."
"We've really dropped the ball on scientific communication. We have to do a better job of explaining what we do to the public."
"Science gives you an appreciation of what's around us. There should be wonder and awe everywhere we look."
Choice tweets (@jwoodgett)
"In Ottawa to fix CIHR. I wish it was that simple."
"Just completed CIHR Foundation scheme stage 1 applicant satisfaction survey. Well, I was satisfied with my answers."