Giant steps have been made in recent decades to improve the overall health of Canadians as a result of basic scientific research, and new research continues to improve our lives daily. This leads to new medical discoveries that improve patient health and well-being as well as providing new economic opportunities for our country. However, significant challenges remain. For example, it is estimated that one in three Canadians will be affected by a neurological disorder, injury or psychiatric disease in his or her lifetime, making these a leading cause of disability. Increased investment in brain research will accelerate the discovery of novel and innovative treatments and prevention strategies to decrease the burden of disease on individuals and society as a whole.
Support from the government is essential for the vitality of research, and this is true for all areas of scientific inquiry. However, as representatives of the largest association of neuroscientists in this country, we speak specifically to the importance of public funding of neuroscience research for the health and well-being of all Canadians. Increased support of investigator-initiated independent research projects, such as that provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Canada Brain Research Fund through Brain Canada, must be a priority for our next elected government.
Researchers today are worried they will not have the funds required to pursue important research designed to investigate basic mechanisms of brain function. Support for these studies is essential for developing new therapies to treat disorders of the brain. Funding for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) has remained the same since 2008 despite inflation and rising research costs. A recent survey conducted amongst the members of our Association, the Canadian Association for Neuroscience (http://can-acn.org/), revealed that 69% of Canadian neuroscientists believe their chances of receiving sufficient stable funding for their research from the CIHR are diminishing.
The consequences of not reinvesting in research today will be felt for many years to come. The excellence and reputation of existing neuroscience laboratories in Canada have been built by years of hard work, innovation and commitment. A strong scientific community in turn attracts more excellent young researchers, further enhancing Canada’s position in the global scientific community. The loss of laboratories due to lack of adequate funding has long term effects that cannot simply be mitigated by increasing funding at a later date.
While Canadian researchers are facing decreasing success rates, in the United States, both Democrats and Republicans support the call for a doubling of the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Former speaker of the United States House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, who proposed this initiative, rightfully argued that government “is ultimately on the hook for the costs of illness. It’s irresponsible and short-sighted, not prudent, to let financing for basic research dwindle. We are in a time of unimaginable scientific and technological progress. By funding basic medical research, Congress can transform our fiscal health, and our personal health, too.” More investment in research to prevent diseases makes economic sense on both sides of the border. Increasing the budgets of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Brain Canada is one of the best investments the next elected Canadian government could make.
Increased investment in scientific research is also good for the economy, as innovation brings with it economic growth. A research laboratory, even a small one, is a place that trains and employs highly skilled professionals that contribute to the advancement of our society and the economy. New discoveries made through open-minded, researcher-initiated, and curiosity-driven research sometimes have unanticipated benefits. Many times the most innovative ideas come from unlikely places.
As an example of this, one technology that has recently led to significant breakthroughs in brain research is called optogenetics. Optogenetics uses light-driven pumps, initially discovered in bacteria living in high salt environments (i.e., pond scum), which can be used to activate or inhibit very specific brain cells to better understand how the circuits in our brains are connected and function to drive behavior. Such technology holds tremendous potential to provide new treatment therapies in the future for the many devastating disorders that occur when circuitry goes awry such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression and traumatic brain injury. The identification of the light activated proteins that are essential for this advance would not have occurred if biologists had not studied the microscopic life forms that live in extremely salty water. They pursued these studies simply out of curiosity, to learn more about how these bacteria survive.
While we don’t know where the next breakthrough discovery will occur, we do know that we need to provide the right conditions and environment to nurture this important process. Canada has shown time and again that it has the expertise and ingenuity to make us leaders in brain research. However, the current difficult funding environment could lead to the elimination of many university laboratories, either due to lack of adequate funding to support research, or due to the loss of some of our best scientists, to countries that offer more stable research funding. Increased investment in research in Canada will ensure our researchers have the freedom and funds necessary to make the discoveries that will benefit all Canadians.
Douglas P Munoz, President, for the Executive Committee of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience