In the last decade, the phrase “from bench to bedside” has become a common theme at research conferences and appropriately reflects the growing pressure for scientists to do translational research. This trending emphasis on translational research does not only pertain to the medical sciences, but also the social sciences and humanities, and can be attributed to a change in mindset by government and policy-makers. Evident in the refocusing of established funding strategies and in newly founded funding programs, the pressure to do translational research will certainly shape our paths as graduate students going into the future.
Until 2005, the number of National Institutes of Health (NIH) project grants steadily increased for principal investigators holding a PhD in contrast to MDs and MD-PhDs. At the same time, industry spending on research and development also increased. However, these increases in spending didn’t translate into an increase in medical treatments or products. A change in approach at government and the research agency level was brought about to expedite a solution and help capitalize on the research investments. And so, the push for translational medicine was heightened.
In the United States, President Barack Obama reinforced his commitment with a declaration of a “War on Cancer”. Similarly, the NIH established Clinical and Translational Science Centers (CTSCs) at academic institutions and medical centers, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) in an effort to jump-start and fast-track the development of new therapeutics. The CTSCs cost the NIH $500 million annually and although the NIH maintains that 54% of its funding goes towards basic research projects, the 2014 budget reveals a further increase – upwards of $90 million – in NCATS funding to a number of translational research grants. Meanwhile, there will be a reduction in funding – $50 million – towards the Institutional Development Award (IDeA), which supports both basic and clinical research projects.
In Canada, the shift towards translational research is perhaps more noticeable. Over the past decade the Canadian government has continued to cut funding for basic science projects in favor of industrial partnerships and translational research. Between 2001 and 2010, allocation of Canadian Research Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) funding to open operating grants has decreased from 91% to 67% while funding for strategic grants – that aim to bolster Canada’s economy – has increased from 9% to 33%.
In a statement at the World Economic Forum in early 2012, Stephen Harper criticized the lengthy and strenuous process of transforming scientific discovery into commercialized product:
We will continue to make the key investments in science and technology necessary to sustain a modern competitive economy. But we believe that Canada’s less than optimal results for those investments is a significant problem for our country.
The Canadian federal budget outlined in March 2013 for the 2013–2014 fiscal year reaffirmed the government’s efforts to push industrial partnerships and translational research. To start, the three major Canadian funding agencies: the CIHR, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) will together receive an additional $37 million for “industry-driven” research, defined as collaborative projects between academic researchers and companies. An $141 million will be allocated to the National Research Council over the next two years in hopes of transforming the government’s major laboratories into what Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, described as a “concierge” service, to offer a “one-stop, 1-800” fix for businesses.
Furthermore, another $165 million over the next three years will be used to fund a Genome Canada competition geared towards translational research projects. Notably, no new money will be assigned to the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI), which has contributed over $5.5 billion to basic biomedical research and infrastructure projects (up to January 23, 2013). Instead, the CFI has been given $225 million of accrued interest from the past decade, but no new money, to fund current operations and to hold a new competition.
Not to say that there is no support for curiosity-driven basic research, the balance has certainly shifted in favour of translational studies and commercialization. As graduate students in the Department of Immunology, most of us carry out basic science projects. But many of us also feel pressured to describe a therapeutic potential in our project proposals, especially when applying for grants. Moving forward, we should be conscious of the changes in funding policies and be aware of its impact on our own research future.