CSMB President Tarik Möröy was pleased to speak on behalf of our members at a briefing on COVID-19 of the House of Commons Standing committee on health.
The meeting has been recorded and can be viewed on ParlVu here
Read Dr. Möröy’s speaking notes here:
Statement for The House of Commons of Canada’s Standing Committee on Health
Tarik Möröy, Ph. D., FCAHS
President, Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences
Thursday, April 30, 2020
Good afternoon. Thank you very much for the invitation to appear before this Committee today to speak on the Canadian Response to the Outbreak of COVID-19. Our members have been at the forefront of the response, and welcome the opportunity to speak to our experience.
Bon après-midi. Merci beaucoup de m’avoir invité à ce comité aujourd’hui pour parler de la réponse du Canada à l’éclosion de COVID-19. Nos membres ont été à l’avant-garde de la réponse et nous sommes heureux de l’occasion de parler de notre expérience.
I am a molecular biologist and biochemist by training, a professor at UdeM with an adjunct appointment at McGill, and have a laboratory at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute (IRCM). I work on the biology of blood cells and on blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma. I was also president and scientific director of the IRCM for over a decade, and was responsible for both basic and clinical research and the general administration of the institute.
As President of the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences (CSMB), I am honoured to be here on behalf of members. Conceived in 1957, the CSMB is a professional association of researchers involved in Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Molecular Biology and Genetics. Our members are mostly from universities and academic research institutions from all over the country and are the ones that are responsible for investigator-driven discovery research. This generates the new knowledge that fuels innovation and trains the next generation of scientists for jobs in our knowledge-based economy.
Our main mission includes the promotion of biomolecular sciences, the fostering of our trainees and students, the organization of scientific meetings with international attendance and visibility, the support of the implementation of equity, diversity and inclusion standards in academic institutions and the general advocacy for science and research. We support a strong scientific and health research community in Canada, to ensure that our country remains a world leader on innovation and scientific discoveries, which has never been more pressing then in the face of COVID-19.
Most of what we know about viruses ranging from molecular biology to epidemiology and public health comes from basic research, and as this pandemic has illustrated, investing in scientific research isn’t just important for scientists, it impacts the daily lives of all Canadians. From innovative treatments to curing diseases that affect millions of Canadians, to new technologies that can help us address the global climate crisis, scientific research is essential to confronting the issues that we face today and our children will in the future. Without the investments that have been made by our governments to support our scientific community thus far, Canada would have fared far worse in the face of this pandemic.
We want to acknowledge the strong and co-ordinated response of the Canadian government and granting agencies to combat COVID-19, and express our appreciation for the fact that this response has been led by science and scientific insight, provided by our best and brightest from across the country, and that communication with the people continues to rely on the best possible available scientific data. The ability to respond this way is only conceivable because we have long identified science as a priority for the health and security of Canadians. We will need to uphold this in the days that come during this pandemic, and in particular also after the pandemic.
We also appreciate the ongoing communications from provincial and federal government and from Public Health Officers across the country including from Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, which have all been guided by science.
Canadian researchers are rising to the critical challenges of COVID-19 pandemic. Our members are engaged in promising research, and have been at the forefront of efforts to address this pandemic. One example is the Institute du recherches cliniques de Montreal, that I have led as president and scientific director over a decade and where I run my own research lab along almost 40 other laboratories. We have set up a testing lab for SARS-Cov-2 for clinical trials and we will shortly set-up an antibody screening system, as well as a Level 3 containment lab to test antivirals in the fight to address COVID-19. This is an example of one institution alone, while molecular bioscientists, and scientists across all fields, are working around the clock at their institutions across the country to help Canada fight this pandemic.
If anything positive has come out of COVID-19, it is that it has encouraged and enabled researchers from coast to coast to coast to get together, talk to each other, and form research groups to rapidly respond to the crisis. For example, when the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) put dedicated money aside for COVID-19 projects, which required a rapid response, the scientific community immediately worked together cross-country to put appropriate teams and projects in place. COVID-19 research groups, comprised of chemists, biologists, and molecular biologists have been formed, bringing together scientists that wouldn’t have necessarily worked together prior to the pandemic.
While Canada’s scientific community continues to bring forward promising research in the fight against COVID-19, at the same time we have concerns about what research in Canada will look like in the coming months and years.
For example, whereas many in the scientific community were preparing for the CIHR’s Spring 2020 competition, which many projects depend on to come to fruition, this competition was not only postponed, but cancelled outright. Canada is the only country to have a major national funding agency cancel its competitions for funding health research in the face of a global health crisis. Decisions like this have now already hit in particular early-career researchers and trainees that were applying for their first grant very hard, and will have impacts on our community in the long-term.
While we appreciate how quick the CIHR was to mobilize significant funds for a rapid response to COVID-19, we still need to maintain support for discovery science, in the long-term. Will the funds spent for COVID-19 research be missing in future competitions for grants? In order to respond to a health crisis such as COVID-19 with a vaccine, we require a solid base of scientific research and discovery, supported by stable and continued funding.
More broadly, even before the pandemic, there were warning signs that Canada’s commitment to its researchers was starting to slip behind other countries. Canada’s investment in research and development has steadily declined over the past 10 years, making us the only G7 nation to hold this distinction.
Looking ahead we have three recommendations. Canada is only spending 1.5% of its GDP on research and development, whereas the OECD average is around 2.4%. We are no longer in the top 20 countries globally, lagging behind countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovenia in terms of total research intensity. Long after this pandemic has come and gone, we need continued political commitment to reclaim our standing as a world-leader in scientific research and discovery, so that if and when we are faced with another crisis, we can respond quickly and appropriately. Our first recommendation is that the Government enact policies and programs to get our funding on research and development up to the OECD average of 2.4% of GDP. Investing in fundamental research will improve our ability to predict disease and to grow cells and tissue by design.
While we recognize and are grateful that Budget 2018 made significant investments into science and discovery research as you can see from the statistics, even with this investment Canada is still not adequately funding basic research.
Research enterprise has a critical role in Canada and drives economic growth, innovation, produced a highly skilled workforce and – prepares the country with a knowledge base to enable it to respond to crisis such as the one we are witnessing today. The Government must enhance its funding for research to levels recommended by the Fundamental Science Review or the Naylor Report, which was released in 2017.
One example is the amount for fundamental research grants: the Government has only met approximately 60% ($708 millions over 4 years) of the funding recommendations in the Report, which were of $ 1,2 billion over 4 years. A gap of roughly $500 million, which is missing in this particular and very important funding line.
Thus, our second recommendation is that the Government invest the additional $ 500 million over 4 years in the federal granting councils in order to meet the recommendation of the Naylor Report for fundamental research. If we expect to maintain our world class research capacity here in Canada this investment is urgently needed.
Finally, our third recommendation is that we believe it is essential to collect better data on a wide-range of demographics. We have already found evidence that we are seeing the pandemic play out differently in Canada compared to other countries. We need to ensure that we collect information and data on how different demographics across the country are experiencing the pandemic differently – both to inform our response to this pandemic, but also on global health crisis to come. This data should be collected through a multi-disciplinary approach, enlisting our social scientists, our bioethicists, and more to ensure that we gather the breadth of research required to properly analyze how Canadians were affected by the pandemic, and how we were effective in our response.
Thank you again for the invitation to speak to you today. I look forward to answering your questions.