Biotech in Canada: Maple Leaves, Money, and Mingling

Last night research, industry and politics got together at Dailey's in Atlanta for a little meeting. It was actually a networking reception but let's face it, we were all about ensuring the wheels of biotechnology kept turning in Canada.

These events always raise a few questions for me, probably because 'networking' is not by strong suit. Who funds science and just as importantly, how should it be funded?  Private industry based on commercial potential? Government with one eye on the basic research and another eye on applying it to the daily lives of the electorate? Academia for the pure sake of research and scientific curiosity?

The answer lies somewhere betwixt and between, but as money tightens in the public and private sectors it is becoming more complicated and more important. A recent article in the National Post a national newspaper in Canada) by  Michael Bliss  gave the science community a lot to think about  and it sent some scientists into a bit of a tail spin.

There was indignation that Michael Bliss who has made one of his specialties the HISTORY of science while not being a scientist himself, should dare to suggest how science should be funded in Canada. One voice from  the science community pointed out some some evidence-based research around cancer research showed that compared to the United Kingdom, Canada was actually doing fairly well though you may not agree with the types of cancer research being funded. Meanwhile others suggested society in general values basic research only where it yields discoveries that could improve the health of people or where new technologies lead to industrial innovation and economic activity.

The reality is that the world cannot afford to support research that is only about furthering our scientific knowledge of us and the world around us. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do that type of research, it merely means we can't usually afford it. On the other hand researchers can't just crawl out of bed one morning thinking it is time to discover something new to heal the world and build new industries. And it has always been that way. Chris Columbus would never have been able to find out if he would sail around or over the edge of the earth without funding from Queen Isabella of Spain and her husband the King. Prying apart politics and science is pretty much impossible. Last night the Canadian presence at BIO was kicked off at Dailey's restaurant by The Honourable Tony Clement, Minister of Industry and the Canadian Consul General to Atlanta, Mr. Brian Oak.

Could we be any more political ? Could many of us in the Canadian Pavilion afford to be there without political support and funding?

But both publicly funded scientists and private research wear blinkers and I would argue that it is the academics with the bigger blind spot. There is an assumption by both that if you teach them, they will come. That somehow it is simply a case of making up the basic knowledge deficit about what the research is all about to win the support of the public but it simply doesn't work that way.  

At least the private sector uses solid PR techniques to get the word out and when they can afford it have a philanthropic side. Publicly funded researchers seem to want to do all the PR legwork themselves and can seldom afford to be philanthropic about it anything at all. I'm in the not-for-profit research sector and we work to bring together all sectors, from a variey of disiplines and from across provincial and national borders. We don't have the answer nailed down yet but give us time.

Maybe by next BIO in Chicago we'll be able to afford our own Pavilion, fund a community outreach exercise instead of a political reception, and have discovered something that has put us on the map. Or maybe I'll be standing on a bar stool once again in a crowded bar with my little camera, taking pictures of politicians:

Drop by the Alberta Pavilion , say hi , and maybe share some thoughts on the best ways to fund what we do.