Federal government must support health research for post-COVID economic recovery

Fundamental science provided the building blocks for the scientific community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and was the foundation for the rapid development of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to combat the virus. Fundamental science can also be the foundation for our nation to build back better post-COVID, but only if the federal government increases support to shore up Canada’s destabilized health research and innovation ecosystem.

Within weeks of the first reported cases of COVID-19 in Canada, our scientists had isolated the virus that causes COVID-19, and begun testing a vaccine candidate. Canadian researchers were the first in the world to profile the body’s immune response to COVID-19 and which molecules to target to treat the virus’ inflammatory effects. Those advances were built upon many years of fundamental research, particularly following the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak when Canada aggressively pursued research into the SARS coronavirus in the hopes of producing a vaccine.

Scientific breakthroughs require work and work requires sustained financial support across sectors.

COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated the importance of collaboration among the stakeholders —academic health science centres, research hospitals, universities, colleges, health and biosciences companies, health charities and governments— that comprise the health research and innovation ecosystem. Yet Canada has not built strong, cohesive policies and political will to unite these sectors to properly support health research and innovation in our country.

Having a stable and competitive business environment in which the health and biosciences sector can innovate is essential to ensure that future major outbreaks are effectively and efficiently contained to protect the health of Canadians. A strong health and biosciences sector is vital not just to our health security, but equally to our growth and economic security. This too must be a focus of the upcoming federal budget and federal election.

The importance of a strong health and biosciences sector was underscored recently in a report from the Industry Strategy Council, to identify the scope and depth of COVID-19’s impact on industry, inform government of specific sectoral pressures and challenges, and collect input on the impact of the pandemic. The Council’s report highlights the success the health and biosciences sector has seen in recent years and recommends investments over the next 12 to 18 months and more strategic policies that will enable the sector to both set a trajectory of inclusive growth to recovery from the pandemic and reimagine an industrial strategy that will catalyze economic growth beyond pre-COVID levels.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the precarious positions of many stakeholders in the health research and innovation ecosystem. Canada’s academic health science centres, for example, account for nearly $3 billion of this country’s biomedical sciences research activity, employ more than 60,000 highly skilled researchers and staff across the country and are home to specialized core research and healthcare facilities that make them critical institutions in the rollout of clinical trials for new vaccines and treatments. When the pandemic struck, it forced pre-existing and ongoing health research, including clinical trials, to be halted across the country, much of which has yet to resume over a year later resulting in the loss of financial support from private industry partners.

Health charities were also severely impacted by the pandemic, with philanthropy and fundraising all but disappearing as Canadians across the country faced their own economic struggles. As major sources of funding for and partners of health research, the struggles of health charities further impacted the academic health science centres that conduct this research.  As healthcare providers these institutions also continue to battle the same capacity challenges to provide care for Canadians through wave after wave of COVID-19. Academic health science centres are further disadvantaged by the fact that they are prohibited from directly accessing federal funding programs. Budget 2021 must seize the opportunity to start work toward a coordinated, national approach to research funding and support at these institutions.

It is also important to recognize that healthcare and health research is about more than institutions; it is first and foremost about people. Researchers and clinicians at all career stages are integral to the health research workforce. Early-career researchers—including graduate students, trainees and post doctoral fellows—for instance, are critical to the development of the highly qualified personnel necessary for Canada’s knowledge economy and vital to supporting top-flight research projects. The COVID-19 pandemic generated a great deal of uncertainty for the futures of these researchers. Similarly, mid-career researchers, who hold a wealth of research knowledge, are also being squeezed out of grant competitions and funding options. The Biden administration recently announced it was investing $250 billion in research. If Canada is to stay globally competitive and keep pace with other G7 nations in research and innovation, it must step up and support its researchers or risk losing their considerable knowledge, skills and talent.

COVID-19 has showcased the strength of Canada’s health research and innovation ecosystem and the vital role it can play as our nation seeks to restart our economy. The federal government must act urgently to recognize and strengthen the inextricable linkages between our economy and the health system, from basic research to commercialization to adoption and scaling of innovation. We need federal support now to rebuild the foundation of the health research and innovation ecosystem in Canada.

About HealthCareCAN
HealthCareCAN is the national voice of healthcare organizations and hospitals across Canada. We foster informed and continuous, results-oriented discovery and innovation across the continuum of healthcare. For more information visit www.healthcarecan.ca.
About Research Canada
Research Canada is a national alliance dedicated to increasing investments in health research through collaborative advocacy and engaging government, academia, industry and non-profit sectors to build support for long-term health research funding. For more information, visit rc-rc.ca.