Canada's future prosperity could be at stake if policies related to young children fail to catch up to the scientific evidence.
That was a key takeaway from a special symposium held in Toronto last week that brought together world experts in the biology of child and brain development with those who specialize in the health and success of entire societies.
The meeting helped to underscore how far molecular geneticists have come in revealing precisely how environmental influences, from toxic chemicals to economic stress, can affect the activity level of a young child's DNA at precisely the moment when crucial genes related to brain development are in play. These epigenetic influences can leave a lasting mark throughout life, with the result that affected children are less likely to be able to meet the cognitive demands of school. The data suggest they also face reduced opportunities for a healthy and productive adulthood.
"If you wait for children to fail, you've lost so much capacity by that point that it's hard to catch up," said Neal Halfon, director of UCLA's Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities.
Dr. Halfon was among those who lauded the work of University of British Columbia epidemiologist Clyde Hertzman, who died suddenly last year. Dr. Hertzman was known for pioneering research that correlated social inequality across various B.C. communities with the cognitive performance of children in those communities and their comparative readiness for school. The symposium, convened by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), was held as a tribute to his ongoing influence in the field.
Participants at last week's meeting said the science leaves little doubt that the long-term cost of ignoring a child's early years is far greater that any short-term saving.
Yet despite the leadership role that Canadian researchers have played in this area, Canada's public spending on early childhood education relative to its level of prosperity ranks the lowest among first-world countries – roughly $3-billion to $4-billion per year below what it would take to meet the OECD average. This is because, until children enter the school system, the cost of their development is primarily borne by families, which puts children from low-income groups at a disadvantage that could then become biologically embedded.
"It's one of those reinforcing factors that dampens social mobility," said Craig Alexander, chief economist at TD Bank Group, who presented his analysis of the economic impact of spending on early childhood education.
He said that as a straight cost/benefit analysis, the value of investing in children is clear, all the more so as an aging population and the ongoing shift to an information-based global economy increases demand for a more skilled work force. "The problem for governments though is that it's just such a big price tag."
Tracy Smyth, an instructor and community developer who followed the symposium online along with her class of early childhood educators at North Island College in Port Alberni, B.C., said, that the deferred nature of the benefits that stem from improved child development adds to the policy challenge.
"Prevention is still a hard sell at a political level," said Ms. Smyth who in the past worked with Dr. Hertzman on translating his data into better services for children.
Peter Hall, a Harvard political economist and co-director of CIFAR's program on successful societies, said that Canada's trailing position is the result of a "wrong turn" taken in the late 1990s when fiscal constraints derailed a plan to implement a national child program.
"I think this is a temporary hiatus," he added, suggesting that policymakers within Canada and elsewhere were beginning to grasp the biology-based message.
Others said there was more work to be done in educating political leaders about the implications of the latest research.
Citing controversial comments made recently by London's mayor, Boris Johnson, that suggested disparities between rich and poor were the inevitable product of differences in "raw ability," Sir Michael Marmot, chair of the World Health Organization's Commission on the Social Determinants of Health, said, "I think that's factually incorrect, because what the data show is that by improving the environment you can change brain structures."