Fundamental Science: The Heart of the Health Research and Innovation Ecosystem

“I would argue we are ripe for change and this is our opportunity for it. We must all reach out to our colleagues in other sectors and explain to them why their support and advocacy for fundamental science matters now more than ever.”
—Ms. Deborah Gordon-El-Bihbety, Research Canada President and CEO

Many of my colleagues who advocate for health research have been asking me the same question over the past few months: What is happening to the government’s commitment to research? They don’t ask because anyone thinks the government has abandoned research. Quite the contrary. Educated on the importance of research and science and dedicated to increasing the use of science across government, the current federal government knows that to tackle the greatest challenges of our time, the best tool we have is science. The pandemic has driven home to politicians around the globe that science is responsible for what we know about the COVID-19 virus and what solutions, like vaccines, we need to stop it in its tracks.

Then why all of this unease? Perhaps the question my colleagues are really asking is: What is happening to the government’s commitment to fundamental (discovery) research?

The source of our collective distress emanates from what we are not hearing and what has not been explicit in the throne speech, mandate letters and in what government is currently saying. Sure, the language is about science and evidence-based decision-making but the unwavering focus of government is on delivering results through research described as high-risk/high-reward, transformative research. In other words, priority-driven research and not fundamental science.

At a time when everyone is talking about the importance of science and research, it appears any other kind of research which attempts to offer practical solutions to our most pressing dilemmas—pandemics and climate change—is more appealing and saleable to a public that has less tolerance for uncertainty and greater appetite for solutions.

No one is refuting that all health research is important. In fact, that is the point. It is all very important and should all be supported.

Science has always been conducted in political contexts and funds for research in many countries around the world have also been driven by the level of support of the public. Scientists have often had to be advocates for their work appealing both to politicians and different publics alike. At this juncture in our health research advocacy journey, it may seem like we are running around the proverbial mulberry bush once again when it comes to fundamental science advocacy, but when you really think about it, we never did lower the advocacy gauntlet for fundamental science despite our best efforts to ensconce it as a steadfast national priority. Even the Naylor Panel couldn’t get us there.

But we must not be discouraged. Apart from the current government’s embrace of research, we cannot forget that government is a giant monolith. Change comes slowly — in most cases. We can derive some assurances that the COVID-19 pandemic has been the first serious test of how science informed politicians’ decision-making in the face of an immediate global threat, offering important lessons for them on how science, society and policy interact. We can build upon this now more than ever.

The critical collaborations among health research and innovation stakeholders that transform discoveries into innovative breakthroughs in diagnostics, therapeutics and treatments have led to dedicated partnership bonds and a collective recognition that we do not act alone in sectors anymore, nor is any one activity dedicated to R&D independent of another. We act within a broad research and innovation ecosystem where every activity within every sector is interdependent and if one activity is threatened—take for example fundamental science—then applied research and all of the activities that follow it in within the ecosystem cannot be carried out. Innovation will cease.

We are now in a very different place as advocates because fundamental scientists should not be the only ones alarmed by the silence we are now witnessing from government on fundamental science. All stakeholders within the health research and innovation ecosystem from applied scientists to owners of small biotech start-ups to patient groups and CEOs of biopharma and medical device companies should be worried, and advocating for fundamental science.

I know it is not always obvious that the struggle for increased investments in fundamental science is a collective responsibility with collective benefits. We are all still very focused on our own role and interests within the health research and innovation ecosystem, but I would argue we are ripe for change and this is our opportunity for it. We must all reach out to our colleagues in other sectors and explain to them why their support and advocacy for fundamental science matters now more than ever.

Fundamental science has often been described as the heart of human knowledge. But it is more than this. It is the heart of the health research and innovation ecosystem. Without it, we cannot innovate. Without it, we cannot lead globally and ultimately will be left behind. Let us fight for it and let us ask all of our ecosystem partners to join us this time in a big way in one of the most important battles of our times!