Who should decide how we spend research dollars?

It is turning out to be a week of contrasts. While the US is opening up funding opportunities for stem cell research, news of cuts in neuroscience research are being reported here in Canada.

This story appears in yesterday’s Globe and Mail: Team Grants Axed: Neuroscientists fear brain drain as crucial funding disappears

According to the story, there has been a five percent cut across all three federal granting councils: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Along with other cuts, the elimination of the grant highlighted in this story — a neuroscience Team Grant already awarded through CIHR — will save the agency an estimated 34.6 million dollars over three years.

“The cuts exacerbated a funding crunch that has left many senior researchers scrambling to find money to continue their experiments and wondering how Canada will keep its top talent – and attract the best young scientists – at a time when the United States is pouring billions into science. The team grants were axed as part of the $147.9-million in cuts over three years to the CIHR and the two other granting councils that finance research at universities across the country.”

Who should be making decisions about how research funding is spent (or taken away)? Certainly in the US, the increased availability of funding for stem cell research has not been met with universal rejoicing. Many who oppose this kind of research are wondering why their opinions are not being heard or their cautions heeded. Some would say, they certainly had a chance in November to cast their vote, but that assumes it was a single-issue election, which it wasn’t . This story highlights the same kind of thing and raises the same types of concerns (about decision-making), except it isn’t about giving more money, it’s about taking it away.

Priority setting, done thoughtfully, is an important part of sustaining any kind of program or institution. Difficult, even tragic priority setting decisions like this one, about spending more — or less — money on research should involve transparent processes involving key stakeholders. But whom? Scientists shouldn’t be the only ones at the decision-making table. However, at the same time, the table should include more than politicians and policy makers.

It’s true, the three funding bodies in Canada have thorough peer review processes to make decisions about how funds are allocated. But are subsequent cuts to programs peer-reviewed? Who gets a say in what stays and what gets axed? Are there people included in the process who have an idea of the “local” situation and fallout from the decisions being made, i.e. what will happen to the research team, program, participants and patients? And finally, is there consideration of the broader societal implications of such decisions — will this really result in a “brain drain” of good researchers and scientists to other institutions or, in this case, other countries?

~ by Nancy Walton on March 12, 2009.

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