Monday, February 8, 2010

It's Now Official: I'm A Victim Of Anti-Science Harper


(Updated below)

Those few folks among you who are regular readers of APOV know that I'm a professor and research scientist. Specifically, I'm a cellular biologist working on further understanding the intracellular signals which regulate cell survival and death in intestinal/colon epithelial cells. Furthermore, my research aims to better understand how the deregulation of such "life and death" signaling contributes to intestinal/colon tumorigenesis, as well as in chronic inflammatory bowel diseases (like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis).

Throughout my 12-plus years career as an independent scientist, I've been regularly funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

The CIHR holds two operating grant competitions per year: one in September (so funds awarded begin on April 1st of the following year) and one in March (funds then awarded begin on October 1st of the same year). Typically, funds awarded have a duration of three years, with having to apply for renewal about two years and a half into their duration, in order to meet either one of the aforementionned competition deadlines.

Back in the September 2005 competition, I applied for and was awarded another operating grant from the CIHR for the typical duration of three years. My application scored in the excellent range, I was ranked 11th in my peer review committee (Experimental Medicine) and twelve applications were approved by the CIHR within my committee that year. Incidentally, the funding began April 1st of 2006, a couple of weeks after Harper and his Harpies "took office" for the first time.

Jumping forward to 2008, when I had to apply for renewal of my operating grant in the September competition. My application scored in the excellent range again and this time was ranked 10th within the same peer review committee. Furthermore, the committee recommended that I be funded for 5 years! However, the CIHR approved only nine applications within said committee and therefore I was denied funding. Fortunately, the Institute to which I "belong" (the Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes Institute) "rescued" my application and gave me funding for one year nevertheless.

So, I had to apply again in the September competition of 2009. This time around, I scored (yet again) in the excellent range and ranked 9th within the very same peer review committee. Furthermore, the committee recommended that I be funded for 4 years! And guess what? The CIHR approved only eight applications within my committee. And because I was "rescued" last year, my Institute can't rescue me again this year.

This means that once my current funding ends on March 31 2010, I will have no research funding.

Despite being scored in the excellent range.

And no research funding means many things: a) I can't take in undergrad trainees or grad students (M.Sc., Ph.D.) because I have no money to pay their salaries; b) I stand to lose my research assistant for the same reason; c) I have no money to actually do research, since I can't pay for reagents, expendables and materials required to do, you know, experiments; and d) overall resulting in a sharp drop in research productivity (i.e. research articles published); which means e) increasing the likelyhood that any application of mine be turned down by any peer review committee because of ... a drop/lack of productivity.

That's why operating grants are critical for research.

Sure - I will once again reapply for the coming CIHR March competition (I am actually busy doing just that, hence why I hardly blog, aside from today's exception). But what else can I expect? Being scored again in the excellent range? Maybe end up being ranked 8th this time around? And for what? For the money-starving CIHR to award only seven applications within my committee and thus be denied funding yet again?

I hope that you see the obvious downward trend as much as I do.

All thanks to anti-science Harper and his Harpies.

I blogged often enough about it here at APOV - as well as many other progressive bloggers elsewhere.

I even recently predicted that things are likely to get even worse.

But what about other funding organizations, some of you may ask. Well, because of the current economic times, private funding agencies are even more cash-starved due to catastrophic drops in donations. Organizations like the Cancer Research Society (CRS), the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of Canada (CCFC), and so many others, have already shipped letters last fall to research scientists in order to warn us that either they: a) expect to award very few grants in 2009-2010; or even worse, b) won't accept new grant applications in order to ensure they can keep funding as much as possible those grants already awarded in the previous years.

To this effect, I received one such a letter from the CCFC (also from other similar organizations) shortly after I'd send in my CCFC operating grant application last fall (the funding decision of which will be known in August of this year). Need I say that I do not expect a postive outcome?

Again - the economic times dictate what private funding organizations can and can't do with regard to research funding. They can't be blamed. No one can be blamed here.

But with regards to federal research funding agencies like the CIHR - well, it is not really their fault as well.

For indeed the blame lies squarely and entirely on the government and, specifically here, on Harper and his Harpies.

They'd rather dish out billions to our banks who did not really need bailouts here in Canada.

They'd rather spend billions in keeping our troops in Afghanistan for absolutely nothing.

But because they are anti-science ignoramuses, they won't inject a mere 10, 25 or 50 millions in the federal funding agencies as they keep putting scientific research way down on the priority list - if not actually considering scientific research as a non-priority.

And now that we are in deficit, it is especially in science research funding (i.e. operating grants) that they will further slash into.

And in case you don't care about any of this, let me remind you of the following:
Without basic research, there can be no new ideas, findings, discoveries to fuel applied sciences - whether technological or medical.

Also, investing in infrastructure alone does not help scientific research - because you spend more on reagents and salaries (students, research personnel) when scientific research is being done. No money for these means no research done. You end up with shiny new/renovated research buildings with no one to work there - not even scientists.

Because typically, if you are a scientist at a university (and thus a professor), no research grants means no graduate students (professor-scientists have an obligation to train grad students - it is part of their job description) and, in short order, likewise means that said scientist-professor is fired.

No basic research therefore means, in the end, a massive loss of working highly skilled folks, a lack of formation of the next generations of highly skilled folks, a loss of novel ideas/findings/discoveries to fuel applied sciences, and therefore a stagnation - if not degeneration - of Canada's position among other industrialized nations with regards to advanced scientific developments.

It is indeed as simple as 1+1=2 or, rather in the present case, 1-1=0.
Incidentally, six collegues in my Faculty were fired just last year - care to guess why?

So in other words:
What are brand, shiny new science centers good for without scientists being paid, research personnel being paid, and no expendables (biological tools, chemicals, etc.) being bought to actually do research because ... there is a growing attrition of science research funding?

Whether it is about climate change, biomedical sciences, physics, chemistry, astronomy, astrophysics, et al. - Harper and his Theocons are effectively killing scientific research in our country.
But don't just take the word of this scientist (emphasis added):
Criticism has come not only from expected corners such as CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers), but also from university faculties and researchers across the country, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and the French Canadian Association for the Advancement of Science.

They warn Ottawa's stand on research will make it tough for Canada to recruit or retain top talent; that the Conservatives are investing in bricks over brain power; that they nurture commercial ventures but neglect basic research; and that funding comes with strings attached. To some, this suggests a new era of political interference is afoot in Canadian science.

In a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, French Canadian Association president Pierre Noreau charged that the “stagnation” of research budgets “condemns us to paralysis, pushes universities towards disastrous budget cuts and threatens the future of research for the coming 30 years.”
Be also mindful of this:
PM urged to restore science funds
More than 2,000 scientists galvanized into 'Don't leave Canada behind' campaign


More than 2,000 researchers, including some of the country's most respected scientists, have signed an open letter to the Prime Minister calling the funding cuts in the January budget “huge steps backward for Canadian science.”

“When U.S. researchers are being actively approached for ideas to use the stimulus money to think big and to hire and retain their researchers, their Canadian counterparts are now scrambling to identify budget cuts for their labs, while worrying about the future of their graduating students,” the letter says.
As well as this (via here; emphasis added):
Canada is falling behind other countries in its level of university participation and postsecondary investment (...) many nations have surpassed Canada’s level of university participation. Canada ranks 24th of 25 countries – ahead only of Japan – in PhD graduates per million population, according to OECD data.
Also that (via here; emphasis added):
The Conference Board of Canada has tabled a blunt assessment of Canada's place in the world. In a new report, it argues Canada is falling behind its industrialized peers when it comes to innovation and its "mediocre performance" in six key areas is a recipe for future problems.

The Conference Board's report -- entitled "How Canada Performs: A Report Card on Canada" -- graded Canada's performance against 16 other industrialized nations in categories such as the economy, the environment, education, health, society and innovation.

While Canada performed well in four of the categories with grades of "B" or better, the Conference Board gave it a "D" in both innovation and the environment.

And relative to other countries, Canada placed in the bottom half in a majority of the categories. When it comes to the economy, for example, Canada was listed 11th, and on the environment it placed a dismal 15th place.

The authors state Canada's performance in the innovation category is especially worrying because of its impact on the other categories.

"Our performance in innovation is stunningly poor," the authors write in the report.

"This poor showing is a serious weakness in Canada's overall performance and an alarming portent for the future."

(...) The authors note, European firms are deriving more than 25 per cent of their revenue from innovative products and services -- a significantly higher proportion than their Canadian counterparts.

The report states Canada isn't just competing against industrialized countries. The global economy means it can't take solace for long in being ahead of the developing world.

"China, India and Brazil, among others, are knocking on our door," said the report.

(...) The Conference Board's report did have some good news. Canada placed only behind Finland in the education category. But even here, the report states it could do better by producing more doctoral graduates, and more graduates with math, science, and engineering degrees.
Or that also (emphasis added):
(According to the STIC Report) Canadian companies do not invest as much as their key competitors around the world in research and development. In a world where talent is everything, other countries are improving their education results and their support for innovative activity more rapidly than Canada. Low literacy and numeracy skills limit the ability of a significant group of Canadians to innovate and benefit from innovation. Low levels of collaboration among companies and between companies and researchers in universities, colleges and government laboratories limits business potential.

While Canadian universities and researchers are conducting cutting-edge research, for the most part they lack international visibility and recognition. In addition, when Canadian companies work to commercialize such research, they often have difficulty accessing sufficient investment capital to develop and sustain innovative new products and services.

Seizing opportunities to strengthen Canada's innovation performance will help develop a stronger economy and enhance Canada's potential as a leader in science, technology and innovation. Specifically, the Report points to the following areas for collective action.

  • Focus science, technology and innovation in areas where Canada can leverage its strengths to achieve global leadership
  • Markedly enhance business research and development
  • Renew efforts to attract, better educate and cultivate highly skilled people
  • Encourage, recognize, and reward the science and business innovators of tomorrow
  • Aggressively pursue strategic international science, technology and innovation partnerships to advance Canadian interests
Meanwhile, all we get is the usual, hypocritical lip-service on the matter from Harper and his Harpies (emphasis added):
The Honourable Tony Clement, Minister of Industry, and the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology), today received Canada's Science, Technology and Innovation System: State of the Nation 2008, the first public report by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC). The report charts Canada's progress and compares Canadian performance with that of the world's science, technology and innovation leaders.

"Our government places a high value on the advancement of science, technology, innovation and commercialization," said Minister Clement. "This report is important feedback on the Government of Canada's science and technology policy; it provides a valuable baseline to track our progress. I would like to thank the Council members for their hard work and for lending their expertise to Canada."

(...) "Since 2006, our government has been committed to investing in research and development in order to improve the quality of life of all Canadians and strengthen the economy for future generations," said Minister of State Goodyear. "Investing in science and technology is crucial to developing highly skilled people and improving the long-term competitiveness of Canadian firms."
Yeah. Right. Gotcha. Absolutely.

So once again: Welcome to Harper Land.

I hope you're at least enjoying it.

Because I sure don't.

And so it is with my research assistant as well.

And so it is as well for way too many Canadian scientists out there.

And so it will be for those eager, bright undergrad trainees and grad students I will have to turn away.

Unless, by a stroke of luck, I get funded again by the CIHR ... against all odds.

Still - it does say something about a country when excellent research now gets to be funded only through circumstantial happenstance, instead of being funded because it is considered excellent.

Indeed - this does say something about our country ...


Update 15/10/2010: well, better late than never, the saying goes ... my institute finally decided to "rescue" my Sept. 2009 application after all. So, I'm "good to go" again for a year. We'll see how the March 2010 will turn out somtimes in late July ...

11 comments:

  1. I think that it is time to start calling a spade a spade. Your funding was cut because our country is being run by religious extremists. Everyone prances around it. Yes, extremist is the correct word. If a group seeks to control the behavior and beliefs of everyone else around them, not just those within their sect, then that's extremism. Lets say it together. Harper is a religious extremist. Harpers policy is theocracy.
    s

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  2. I agree. Hell, just ask our current Minister of Science and Technology ...

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  3. that's awful Mentarch. Sorry to hear that.

    I agree with the previous comment, though, that the cuts are not just a reflection of a disinterest in, or ignorance of the importance of research, but a deliberate attack on science and research.

    Keep 'em ignorant, and they will follow slogans.

    Is it possible your blogging has affected your chances of obtaining grants? Doesn't seem to fit with how the funding is done, but just wondered.

    These ignorant, destructive, religious, spiteful fucks will be out of power soon. I hope the damaged caused won't be too difficult to repair, or take too long. Takes a hell of a lot longer to put in good policy and programs than to take them down.

    Best wishes to you, Boss.

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  4. Thanks 900ftJ - much appreciated.

    Although I doubt that I will end up being fired any time soon ... but my promotion as titular professor is definitely in jeopardy.

    So is the financial future of my research assistant - who has a 2 year-old boy (she's been with me for the better part of 7 years - first as an M.Sc. student in my lab and, since after getting her diploma in 2004, my research assistant).

    And I agree completely: this is about Harper and Co. being anti-science due to their parochial, primitive-minded religious beliefs/ideologies.

    I know I've blogged about this often enough ...

    (oh, and no - there is no way whatsoever that my blogging somehow played any part in first, the peer review committee's evaluation of my applications, and second, in the CIHR's final decision to not approve my applications. It is strickly a matter of available funding monies ... which keep on shrinking and shrinking and shrinking).

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  5. Well put.
    Harper's agenda is geared around one thing and one thing only - getting elected.
    Gimmicks like cutting the GST or the home reno program sell well in Tim Horton's but research grants, arts funding and public servant pensions?
    Naw - those issues aren't going to get them votes in the Golden Horseshoe!

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  6. I'm very sorry to hear of your misfortune. Science is clearly a non-priority (at best) right now for the government. The entire funding system must be hurting when medical science funding is as cash-strapped as it is now...

    Hopefully, you will still be able to publish and do experiments with what resources you have left (or whatever you can share with your collaborators) to keep your productivity up. Heck, even consider review articles summarizing your field at the moment... it wouldn't be original research, but (unless I'm mistaken) I think publications of all kinds help. Unfortunately, it's not sustainable without government funding...

    Regardless, I wish you and your entire lab the best of luck in solving your funding problems. You probably have infinitely better ideas and solutions than I would be able to come up with.

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  7. You're doing it wrong man! Apply to clone a dinosaur, they'll drown you in cash and perks and handtooled saddles.
    Sigh...gotta laugh, right?
    Sorry to hear your troubles. Is there a way to get this out into the wide world? I didn't realise how bad it is until I came here and I read a lot of news and blogs. Get this into the Globe and Mail and CBC and the roaches will scurry for cover. They hate sunlight.

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  8. no_blah_blah_blah: thanks - and you are correct ... I am writing review papers as well, however much they can help (reviewers are very discriminate on the matter, because what matters first and foremost is *research* productivity, so review papers are gret essentially when there are research papers published *as well* ... and I should know, cuz I'm one such "peer reviewer" ... meh) ;-)

    I also have edited a science book in which I wrote three chapters - however, it looks like it won't come out until late 2010 or early 2011.

    In any case - I'll just keep on churning grant applications, hoping that that I end up winning the lottery (ah, sorry - I meant "being approved for funding". Ahem).

    Chris: cloning dinosaurs ... yeah ... that's the ticket! Nice one, man - there's an idea indeed! ;-)

    The whole science funding issue has already been in the G&M ... and the Star, I think, as well - at the very least. I suspect that, in the current economic times, folks just don't care about this.

    And I can't say I blame them.

    Regardless, the solution is obvious - throw the retarded (oops - sorry, Sarah Palin!) Harper and his theocons out of government and bring in *serious* and *competents* folks instead.

    It's as plain and simple as it can get ...

    But you are right - being denied funding despite being peer reviewed as "excellent", ya just gotta laugh at the sheer ridiculousness, the very insanity, of it all.

    But in the meantime, it's still back at trying to win the lottery ...

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  9. proof positive that harper doesn't care about Canada.

    Future economic strength depends upon scientific strength.

    Ugh. The ugly world that inhabits their brains.

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  10. I could not have said it better, Thwap ...

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Please feel free to comment on APOV. However, remember to keep in check your tone and respect for all here. Let rational, reasoning, enthousiastic and passionate conversations and discussions rule first and foremost in our participatory democracy, so as to facilitate the free exchange of reality-based facts and ideas. In between, do not forget to have fun and enjoy yourselves ... in other words: keep on rockin'! - Mentarch