Aled Edwards is founding and current CEO of the Structural Genomics Consortium, professor at the University of Toronto and visiting professor at the University of Oxford.
The Canadian government is again in the midst of its annual consultations on innovation. It seems our efforts to find the magic key to an "innovative economy" just never go away.
As in years past, opinion leaders will inevitably look to the San Francisco Bay Area or Boston for best practices. They will offer policy approaches in an attempt to enable Canada to grow similar innovation hubs – apparently without seeing the irony of trying to build an innovation system "just like" somewhere else.
Although we must learn from other jurisdictions, a policy of mimicry is, by definition, not innovative. It also ignores deep structural differences we have with the United States, such as access to markets. If our policy is to copy, we will forever be innovation laggards.
Every year, the world collectively plows a quarter of a trillion dollars into biomedical research. But instead of investing this money to find the most creative solutions to disease, we fund science that duplicates what others are doing.
Back in 2001, after a massive effort, we identified thousands of new genes. Somewhere in those thousands of genes lies the keys to the next generation of treatments for disease. But we largely ignore them. Despite our new knowledge, most scientists continue to study the same genes that were studied in the previous century.
Why are we wasting our best scientists and our money on re-examining the same genes rather than the new ones? Because both governments and industry do not like risk. Only the best proposals – selected on the basis of consensus rather than daring – are funded. Tachi Yamada, the former head of global heath at the Gates Foundation, said it best: "You cannot select innovative grants by peer review, because by definition, innovators have no peers."
And the consequences? Take Parkinson's disease. Although it was described more than 200 years ago, we still don't know its underlying cause and we have had no new drugs for it for 30 years.
This is where innovation policy ought to step in. Rather than reproduce the system that has failed to advance science elsewhere, Canadians ought to be leaders in not only sharing data and samples and avoiding patents, but in setting the global standards for sharing. By sharing, our leading public institutions will reduce needless duplication of effort, decrease senseless negotiations over who owns what, to generate more collaborations. We will also attract the best and brightest young scholars, accelerate discoveries and allow patients and their families to better participate in the research endeavour as well as to get access to the newest treatments.
In short, our universities and hospitals ought to experiment with Open Science. This may seem naive, but it makes economic sense. Open Science will attract industry partners and funding, as the open policy will dramatically reduce the time and effort spent negotiating webs of contracts and will provide industry open access to world expert clinicians and researchers. It will also stimulate local economies, by giving budding student entrepreneurs invaluable insight into business needs and enabling them to launch companies based on a keen knowledge of the market.
McGill University's Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital is the first to attempt this bold experiment, and it has already attracted well over $100-million in federal, provincial and philanthropic donations as a result. More significantly, it has entered into multiple agreements with leading biomedical firms.
The Institute and Hospital is betting Open Science means open for business. And my money is betting they're right. Even if I'm wrong, they deserve all praise for trying. That's what real innovators do.