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Science funding

The long, winding road to 'eureka!' Add to ...

Prof. Boyle, for his part, was an alumnus of the legendary Bell Labs in New Jersey, an institution that no longer exists. It's not the only private research facility that has gone the way of the dodo. Xerox had its own ambitious pure research operation, as did Canada's Northern Telecom.

Both are now gone, although other private research hot- houses - such as the Perimeter Institute or Google.org, the search engine's R&D shop - have cropped up, thanks to wealthy entrepreneurs with private passions.

Prof. Turok believes an unfettered research agenda coupled with private funding is a "powerful combination." The Perimeter scientists, he says, feel a "huge responsibility" to drive the scientific agenda envisioned by their patrons.

But Prof. Sinervo points out that such institutions will never provide sufficient support. "It's not sustainable to expect the private sector to invest significant resources into fundamental research. Then it becomes a question of how much should government see [fundamental research]as its primary role."

And therein lies the policy riddle. Lawyer-philanthropist Richard Ivey, who chairs the CIFAR board, observes that Canada is "at risk in the medium- to long-term" because of the exodus of manufacturing and the limitations of resource industries. Some policy-makers clearly feel the pressure and want researchers to be providing the building blocks for Canada's economy in the 21st century.

"In my experience," Neil Turok says, "if you look back in history, the greatest wealth has come when people are free to pursue their own ideas and aren't constrained by a predetermined agenda."

During the early 1960s, the development of the drugs now used to treat Parkinson's evolved by trial and error, with some scientists trying higher doses and others finding no benefits at all. By 1967, a researcher stumbled upon a dosing technique that achieved predictable therapeutic results. It's still in use today.

Since then, neuroscientists have learned even more about dopamine's role in treating drug addiction and compulsive gambling. As for Henry Wellcome's free-wheeling lab, it eventually became part of GlaxoSmithKline, the world's second-largest drug company.

"Name me a major recent clinical or technological breakthrough in neuroscience," muses Prof. McNaughton, the brain chemistry researcher, "and I'll show that it has its foundation in curiosity-driven research by people that are mostly retired, if not dead."

In all likelihood, they weren't using business plans, either.

John Lorinc is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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