Monday, June 10, 2013

Canadian Biotech Needs Canadian Philanthropists

Wayne Schnarr posted a great summary of Canadian biotech over at The Cross-Border Biotech Blog:
To paraphrase the conference luncheon panelists, there is no D in R&D unless there is good R, and the best way for government to help fill the pipeline of new technologies and companies is to continue funding basic academic research. If they do not, their short-sighted (to the next election) approach will have a negative long-term impact.
A volatile and difficult economic environment has forced governments to focus on stimulating economic activity and job creation. The complaint about an inability to fill job vacancies has been heard for decades – although the province and the industry may differ. From my perspective, this is a result of either a surprising industry success or poor planning a decade ago by governments and industries. If governments and industries start talking now about the professionals they will need in ten years, this might be enough time for a response from the slow-moving academic institutions, at all levels from high school to graduate school.
At this point, it should be pretty obvious that one of Schnarr's arguments is for long-term, stable, funding needed to build up science at per-commercialization stages. He touches on government as the source.

But is government the right source of this funding?  There's also the message that the election cycle has a disruptive effect on basic science, which suggests that government funding is not the best model for sustainable science funding.

One possible source of less volatile basic research funding are private foundations, but what Canada lacks is one or two organizations on the scale of a Wellcome Trust, a Harvard Endowment, or a Howard Hughes Foundation.

Some might suggest that it's not possible for a country as young, or as small as Canada, but you only have to go as far as finding a few multibillion dollar fortunes to see that Canada does not lack the kind of capacity for wealth creation and aggregation that's required to support big, world scale, revolutionary research that's truly independent from the short term pressure to yield returns on taxpayer investments. 

Now I'm not suggesting that the likes of Galen Weston relinquish his money for science (he does, after all, have a company to run without really having to worry about minority shareholders), but that Canada in aggregate certainly has a few billion to spare.

So I tend to lean towards the idea of good entrepreneurial foundations as the big funders of science over hospital based foundations, which usually have terrible expense ratios, or government grants, which are volatile.

Here's the final challenge: Find the few people in Canada that not only have the scale of funds to set this kind of research in motion but who are also farsighted enough to notice that they're the only ones with the ability to do so.  Launching up smart institutes using private funds is only just beginning.