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During the first week of November 2020, I had the pleasure to participate at Hill Week next to amazing and inspiring colleagues from the Canadian Association for Neuroscience (CAN). CAN is the largest association of neuroscientists in Canada representing over one thousand professors, post-doctoral trainees, MSc and PhD candidates and research professionals working to advance the field of neuroscience. The main aim of our meetings was to inform members of the parliament and government officials about the struggles research laboratories face and request a sustainable increase in federal funding for academic research.
These struggles were present before the pandemic but became more apparent the last year due to cut in public funding and a fast switch to COVID-19 related research leaving behind other endeavors. We advocated the benefits of a continuous public support of research, including investing in the health of Canadians, creation of jobs within academia for highly qualified professionals, and fostering the next generation of leaders in both the public and private sector.
Mature PIs with impressive academic and publishing records mentioned the importance of continuous support so their research could move forward from pre-clinical to clinical studies. Younger PIs mentioned that public funding is the main financial resource to establish their laboratories and research, foster international collaborations, and be able to nurture the new generation of researchers.
Long-term benefits versus short-term profits
Who would have thought, years ago, when the Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor was discovered, that in 2020 we would have to face a global pandemic and that this receptor would act as the entry point of the coronavirus in our body? The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the importance of research, and the flexibility of academic laboratories to switch their interest to accommodate urging matters.
However, research cannot be dictated only by current needs since the driving forces behind countless hours of work from thousands of researchers world-wide are curiosity, and the passion of helping those in need. This is done by trying to reveal underlying mechanisms of several disorders/phenomena and finding answers to puzzling questions.
Academics should be able to conduct research not only based on current societal needs and what would be profitable, but rather let themselves explore pathways that are intriguing without considering the short-term financial benefits. Imagine, Dr. Robert Damadian pitching his prototype MRI scan to private investors, or Albert Einstein trying to convince the members of a bank board to get funding for his research.
Scientific knowledge takes time to develop and evolve and, sometimes, is a result of an unpredicted accident (see the discovery of penicillin) while it requires official or unofficial, national, or international collaborations. The results of research are not always tangibly measurable in the moment, and private investors needs assurance that their investment will eventually pay off. Without public funding, basic research in the field of theoretical physics, or arts will not be able to continue since without any practical implications it would seem like a waste of money and resources for private funding. Working only on projects with high short-term potential would be devastating for the economy and the long-term societal prosperity.
Public funding for public benefits
Public funding is essential not only for research per se but also for financing thousands of experts and nurturing the next generation of academics and leaders. Public universities are an essential part of communities employing researchers, students, technicians, administration staff, librarians, IT specialists and so many more qualified professionals to support advancing of research and knowledge exchange. All these professionals are an integral part of our economy, however as a researcher, I will focus on the community role of my peers.
Apart from conducting innovative studies, researchers play an important role since their expertise is often needed in the decision-making process and development of fact-based policies to better serve a modern society. Demystifying myths and fight misinformation is a constant effort, especially now during COVID-19, and is another battle where researchers are assisting using knowledge and science communication as guides.
University research aims to untangle emerging issues including, but not limited to, the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in our daily lives and its implications, equity and diversity in our societies, inclusion of all demographics in all processes, climate change, the aging of our population, having as a compass, the overall societal benefit, and not monetary profits. Having research dictated by a small number of people who can privately finance it, would have devastating effects in both the quality and the final outcome since research ethics and reasoning would be questionable.
Sustainable and continuous public funding of academic research can be the reason why the next pandemic will be tackled easier. Based on the sustainable goals report from the United Nations, global investments in Research and Development (R&D) have increased from $741 billion (purchasing power parity) in 2000, to $2.2 trillion in 2017. However, it is not discussed what percentage of this amount is towards independent academic research which, as the COVID-19 pandemic revealed supports private endeavours (i.e., the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, the CEO of BioNTech from the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is a professor at the University Medical Center Mainz).
Academic research is the backbone of a modern society and economy. Thousands of daily products have been developed in university laboratories, and millions of students are cultivating important personal and technical skills through their academic life. Continuous support of independent research and education, worldwide, will create a prosperous and equitable society.