A lesson for policy-makers from the life of Tony Pawson

‘View basic science as a long-term investment that will yield completely unexpected dividends’


Look how fast Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne came running when the chairman of the Toronto Maple Leafs gave $35 million to cancer research!

Who can blame her? Wynne’s rivals, Andrea Horwath and Tim Hudak, would have beaten the same path at similar velocity if they’d had her job. Politicians cut ribbons, and there hasn’t been a prettier ribbon all year in Toronto.

Now let’s see why Larry Tanenbaum was feeling so generous.

Larry Tanenbaum likes hockey. He likes it so much he bought a quarter share of Toronto’s NHL team. He had already given Mount Sinai hospital $35 million in 2006, but he started to think he hadn’t done as much as he could after Jason Blake, a Leafs forward who’d recorded two assists in the 2007 All-Star Game, announced he had chronic myelogenous leukemia. Now, the good news about that nasty disease is that it’s highly treatable: put the patient on Gleevec and send him off to practice. Gleevec stops the nasty cells from seducing the good ones, a process exploited by a general class of drugs called “protein kinase inhibitors.” These molecules are so life-saving and profitable that the drug industry can’t stop salivating.

And guess where the work that made Gleevec possible was done. No, guess.

The drug that allowed Mr. Blake to fight the disease while continuing to play professional hockey, which is known commercially as Gleevec, was born of a breakthrough by Tony Pawson, a star researcher at the Lunenfeld Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital.

“When Jason was treated with that, he thanked me for my involvement in Lunenfeld,” Mr. Tanenbaum recalled.

Everything I’ve recounted above — the gift, the ceremony, the Ontario Premier 100-yard dash — happened in late June. Six weeks ago. Tony Pawson died this week, and it’s an awful thing. But it would be an especially awful thing if we did not realize that his legacy is rightly counted, not in fancy syllables and exotic prizes, but in thousands of lives saved and billions of dollars of high-tech industrial activity. Governments want to save lives and make work, and citizens elect governments that do both well. If I were a politician, I would note the wind sprint Kathleen Wynne ran at the end of Pawson’s work — and seek to begin more work that might have comparable results.

So what’s the secret with Pawson? What Special Cancer-Blocking Target Fund did the work? It’s not as though he was ever shy about telling anyone who asked. I met him in 2005 and we talked about science funding. He talked about science funding all the time. But his secret was so deeply prosaic a generation of policy-makers has been hesitant to learn from it.

Here’s what Pawson said when he became the first Canadian to win the Kyoto Prize for science. In the early 1970s in his native England he became interested in work a colleague was doing on the Rous sarcoma virus, which occurs in chickens and can turn a whole Petri dish full of healthy cells cancerous. How did that work? Pawson followed that riddle across 40 years, from London to San Francisco to Vancouver to Toronto, and when he won the second-biggest prize you can win for doing that sort of thing, he said this:

Remarkably, the basic science that has been pursued over several decades into the nature of cell communication, and the mis-wiring of signaling pathways in disease, is starting to yield new targeted therapies that are changing the way that we treat cancers for the better, and will be applicable to many human ailments. Although these are early days, I believe that this progress underscores the importance of giving free rein to human inventiveness. It would have been hard to predict that work on a curious chicken virus would have ultimately led to new ways of thinking about how human cells are organized, and to new drugs to treat one of mankind’s most persistent enemies. Governments increasingly want to see immediate returns on the research that they support, but it is worth viewing basic science as a long-term investment that will yield completely unexpected dividends for humanity in the future.

Giving a researcher money to follow his nose takes a level of self-restraint that does not come naturally to governments in these times. It’s more attractive to announce “funding for leukemia research” or “funding for the fight against Alzheimer’s” or “funding for carbon capture” or “funding for efficient new sources of clean energy.” Take that logic to its limit, and in 1973 a biologist who wants funding to study a funky chicken virus might never get started.

In February of this year, Pawson was at it again. David Johnston, the governor general, and Howard Alper, a leading chemist, had suggested Canada should seek to win more international science awards by increasing the number of Canadian researchers who get nominated. Pawson wrote a Globe op-ed, not available for free online, in which he congratulated Johnston for taking an interest in the matter and then said nominating good work won’t help if there is not enough good work going on. He added:

The ability of Canadian scientists to dream and make the kind of truly innovative discoveries that lead to awards is increasingly compromised by the declining levels of funding based primarily on excellence and vision, and the rise of support for so-called translational and targeted research, which is too frequently of questionable value. Canadian funding bodies are increasingly putting as much weight on non-scientific factors such as socioeconomic benefits as they are on scientific quality in deciding who to support.

 They are entirely at liberty to do so, but they must realize that this strategy compromises innovation of the sort that will change the world. The funding that allowed me as a young assistant professor to do meaningful science 25 years ago is less readily available today, and without it we will not win more prizes, regardless of the volume of nominations.

It’s really important to emphasize that Pawson was talking about changes at the margin. And he knew his own research did well from the current system. The Pawson Lab accounts for $24 million of $63 million Mount Sinai has received from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (which pays for labs and equipment) since 2003; Pawson’s name also appears on $5 million of CIHR grants (which pay the operating costs of specific research projects) awarded to Mount Sinai since 2008.

Don’t quote him as complaining about “declining levels of funding,” because he was well aware that the Harper government funds science research at higher levels than its Liberal predecessors. He was talking about declining funding for what’s sometimes called “curiosity-based research” because, in an extended fit of busy-body statism I would have thought was out of character for a government composed of skeptics of the state’s wisdom, money has been shunted at the margin from peer-reviewed grants toward “targeted” research.

But the Harper government does not even need to heed advice from a dead science star it didn’t ask. It could, instead, read the reports from experts it appointed to study Canada’s science performance. In 2007 Maxime Bernier, then Canada’s industry minister, created the Science, Technology and Innovation Council to compare Canada’s performance in science and industrial innovation (two different things!) against comparable countries around the world. This is the best advice the government can get: the council’s current membership includes the deputy ministers of Industry, Trade and Health; the presidents of Western, Alberta and McGill Universities; and a brochette of CEOs, principally from the energy sector.

The STIC’s third report is an alarm bell. A previous government in (I believe) its 2000 Throne Speech promised to get Canada from 15th in the world to 5th in gross expenditure on research and development. Canada has fallen from 16th in 2006 to 23rd in 2011 (of 41 comparable countries). Business research — which the government called “a national priority” in 2007 — has been “in almost continuous decline for the past decade.”

But Canada has always sucked at business R&D and had begun to lead the world in pure science — and those days are ending. “With their significant investments in research and higher education,” the government’s own expert panel writes, “other countries are catching up and overtaking Canada.”

And while the macro policy and funding climate stagnates, a series of smaller decisions, mostly fuelled by the prime minister’s increasingly open contempt for the notion of human-caused global warming, has created a burgeoning narrative that this government hates science in general. Check out “The Canadian War on Science” on a widely-read science blog. Or Jonathon Gatehouse’s article in this magazine, one of the most widely-read articles we have published all year. And this collapse of the government’s reputation for science leadership will get worse soon, when Chris Turner, a prominent magazine writer who ran as the Green candidate in Calgary Centre’s recent by-election, publishes The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada. When one of the most prominent U.S. science bloggers poured mockery on the Harper government in Slate magazine in May, I reached the obvious conclusion: the ratio of funding to results is turning into a lousy picture for this government.

Now, one way to react to all this noise is to say that Green candidates and snooty U.S. bloggers will of course look down their noses at a Conservative government. But meanwhile hundreds of young researchers from around the world are voting with their feet. A decade ago many were mimicking Tony Pawson, moving from notionally more glamorous precincts — London, San Francisco — to places like Vancouver and Toronto to do dynamite research. Too many have found that the fancy new labs here are misleading because there is not enough money to do science in them. Too many are told they may study approved topics but not the ones that sound eccentric. Too many think they hear snickering when they ask about chicken viruses. They can move, as Tony Pawson might have 30 years ago, to some other jurisdiction. If Pawson had done that, the smiling politician at the top of this article would have had less to smile about. And maybe Jason Blake would be dead today.




A lesson for policy-makers from the life of Tony Pawson

  1. Nice piece and very timely of course. Unfortunately I don’t have time right now to add a lengthier comment but I do have some thoughts I would like to share later. As the (former) head of research of one of the largest charitable supporters of cancer research (Canadian Cancer Society) the funding issues were always of utmost import. But I just wanted to write this short note right now to say thanks for writing this. Perhaps if we can find a way to reverse the government’s view of what is REAL return on investment and get it to start re-investing appropriate amounts into “basic” research, that will be the greatest tribute we could give to Tony Pawson

  2. 1. “snooty US bloggers?” Heh.
    2. Important piece…would like to add that similar issue occurring in US, so problem is beyond a single administration, but reflects more broadly a decline in the understanding of the role of “curiosity based research.” Could not agree more that many leaders have caved on this issue and have equated research with disease cures. Of course we are interested in finding new medicines. We scientists are in a difficult bind because fuding agencies now ask directly for us to bow at the disease application temple. But this narrow focus is self-defeating. We need a broad-based appreciation for the role of science in society. We need more leaders to speak up on this.

  3. An addition to the quote….Education and pure science ‘are both long-term investments that will yield completely unexpected dividends’

    Both of them also need publicity and razzmatazz to change the culture. The kind of thing Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg etc get. The ‘cool factor’.

    • These are just an observations.

      1) Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are university dropouts.

      2) Unfortunately war is also a pretty good driver of pure science. The D in DARPA stood for defense. Probably better than curiosity also.

      3) Money does not necessarily lead to paradigm shifts. Money sometimes reinforces the existing paradigm. Einstein was sitting in a patent office in Switzerland.

      4) Which will make a greater impact to human health, development, and science. a) Clean water for every human being. A basic education for every girl (and boy) in the world. A least one solid education-focused university in every country in the world. OR a) Funding some rich white guy to develop the next cancer drug to treat some rich white guy so some multinational corporation can charge a rentier fee to the public taxpayer to pay for it.

      Proposition 1:
      High science is for the benefit of the 1%. Philanthropy and the 1% should fund high science. Public dollars on science, education, and health are better spent elsewhere. Wells nowhere mentions value for money, or impact of dollars spent.

      Proposition 2:
      It is sort of a moot point. There existing university and research system is going to be disrupted by technology since it is broken. i.e. There is a high education cost bubble, originating in the United States, that has metastasized through the developed world. What is happening now is basically, students are taking on massive amounts of debt to pay for tuition and goes to pay for outrageous retirement benefits of university staff, rather than an education, and that system is going to implode over the next two generations. And the ridiculous tuition they pay is mostly for graduate students to teach them, and not the tenured professors.

      Proposition 3:
      Corporations, which are earning record profits, have dumped the costs of training their employees onto the public taxpayer, reinforcing said education bubble.

      Note: I have a Ph.D. in Physics. I actually support funding basic research, but view throwing money at the existing broken higher education system and model is not value-for-money.

      • Neither of them are ‘drop-outs’ in the traditional sense….both of them came from well-off families and both went to prep school …college….and even got special tutoring in their field of interest …things not available to the average person or middle class. Both of them went to Harvard and then later left to pursue their ideas.

        Also both were considered prodigies… again not a common thing.

        War is indeed a driver of science and tech, but I think most people would now prefer a better method of moving ahead. We also now know that’s possible. It always was, but we were lazy about it and didn’t want to spend the money….so unless someone was well-off and took it up as a hobby….

        Money makes the major difference here….and it’s plentiful for everyone in wartime.

        Nuclear bombs were a paradigm shift….and so were all the other things he explored…..but lots of money was thrown at the projects, so I’m not sure where you’re going with that one.

        (4) drags ideology into it, and that just bogs us down. It would be wonderful if we could feed and educate everyone on earth….well we can actually, but there is no political will for it…… There is nothing wrong with ‘rich white guys’ and if that’s the only way we can get something done, then we do it. However now we have black guys, white women, gays and so on at all levels including rich….so we press on.

        HIgh science is for the benefit of everybody….and everybody should fund it. Through taxes and donations ….without restrictions on what can be researched. All research is valuable, even if we don’t have a practical use for it immediately.

        ” Public dollars on science, education, and health are better spent elsewhere.”??? Where???

        As to education….separate subject but yes it’s imploding. All of it will be done online, and in far less than two generations. I don’t know why the sudden concern about pension costs though…..we’ve had pensions for a long time now. Money is taken from salary, added to by the company or university…..and invested. It is then there for pension benefits when the worker arrives at 65. The Anglican church for example has $5B set aside for retiring clergy.

        University has always cost money and universities have been around for at least 3000 years. Surely we can do better by now. We could start by separating teaching and research….and by eliminating the publish or perish mantra….it’s become a farce anyway.

        Companies often used to train employees….and then the employees would quit and go to work for some other outfit down the street….leaving the training company out of both money and a trained employee. So they quit doing it. Far better if employees are trained by other means.

        In any case…companies that hire ‘workers’ are on their way out so it won’t matter. Robots are programmed, but they don’t need pensions….or holidays or lunch or……….

      • On your 2):

        War is a good driver of pure science because pure science–or at least, pure science with very specific military applications–gets more funding during times of war. But it’s not a very efficient use of funds. War is very, very expensive.

        3) While Einstein personally was not funded by government, his research is heavily indebted to the works of Poincaré, Lorentz, Maxwell, Michelson & Morley… And most of Einstein’s career as a scientist was, much like his contemporaries, funded through the university system.

        4) Why not do both? These goals aren’t mutually exclusive. Research occupies a very small amount of funds used by governments compared to other priorities (eg. wars). So does development aid. UNESCO estimates that it would cost about $10 billion USD per year to get every person in the world clean water. That’s practically a rounding error in the US military budget.

        Prop 1: What funding priorities do you think are better than science, education, and health?

        Prop 2: Most of the developed world does not, in fact, have the same problems as the United States. The education bubble in the US is largely a result of a combination of for-profit universities combined with a very perverse incentive structure on the student loan side of things. Most other countries don’t have these problems because they don’t have for-profit education.

        The problem, incidentally, has very little to do with retirement benefit for university staff. Most of the problems have resulted from a massive increase in the number and compensation of university administration, combined with a useless and unsustainable construction boom on many campuses.

        Prop 3: I agree entirely.

        • //Prop 1: What funding priorities do you think are better than science, education, and health?//

          I think basic research is important, but the benefits have to flow through to the general society, and not just to the wealthy, as is occurring now.

          Right now, the general public is taking the risk and paying the bills, but not receiving payback. The rentier income streams are going to the wealthy.

          Follow the money. See where it comes from and where it flows to. In the aftermath of the global economic crisis where the Wall Street banksters were bailed out, and Main Street wasn’t, this is more important than ever.

          So basic research is wonderful, but no longer so wonderful if one examines the entire money flow from source to destination.

          • “Right now, the general public is taking the risk and paying the bills, but not receiving payback.”

            Do you have evidence of this? I think there’s plenty of basic research that holds value without being productized.

            Consider the Experimental Lakes Area – the basic research there identified phosphorous as a pollutant responsible for algal blooms. We were then able to create policy to limit its use and reduce environmental damage.

          • “I think basic research is important, but the benefits have to flow through to the general society, and not just to the wealthy, as is occurring now.

            Right now, the general public is taking the risk and paying the bills, but not receiving payback.”

            In the document below, the impact of one specific outcome is looked at (new companies) in one particular academic field (physics). For those that cannot get the document, the conclusion is that the ultimate payback to the general coffers through the taxation of successful startups in physics exceeds the original investment in university-based physics research by a factor of 3-4.

            P.S. Vincett, The economic impacts of academic spin-off companies, and their implications for public policy, Research Policy 39 736-747 (2010).

            However it is true that some got rich (in some cases wonderfully stinking rich). I don’t few that as bad, those people undertook risks to translate the university research to a commercial venture. I see it as a win-win.

            As I wrote at the time, when the government was forced by the nasty Liberals and NDP to provide economic stimulation in response to the economic downturn, they should have made part of that investment in graduate students. We had unemployed young people, under-resourced labs at universities, tons of great ideas. It is still a shame it didn’t happen.

  4. The GG’s name is David Johnston not David Johnson! Geezzz

  5. Lets spend less on Libya bombs, defective F35s, rusty subs, and other money for nothing programs of waste and corruption, no bank or GM bailouts and lets focus on more research.

    Fact is we are a wasteful society no serving out people. They tax the living right out of us, and not do much constructive. But these research initiatives like cancer, blindness, slinal injuries et all that I didn’t mention could employ many Canadians with lasting results….

    But our politicians prefer war, waste and corruption.

  6. “But Canada has always sucked at business R&D and had begun to lead the world in pure science — and those days are ending.”

    This is what’s especially shameful about the conservative government’s actions. They claimed to have increased funding for research in general, but as I recall from reading the last budgets (herding cats, anyone?), this increase has usually been minor, and coupled with a large transfer of funding from basic research to applied research aimed at the private sector. In other words, increase by X in total, but slash 6X out of basic research and reassign this money to so called short-term application-aimed research.

    The government has done it’s best to destroy what Canada has long been good at (basic research), transfering it’s funding to company R&D and always severely optimistic public-private partnerships, which aren’t at all garanteed to pay off.

    When you have two horses, one good, the other dubious, common sense suggests it’s foolish to train and support the dubious one while letting the good one wither away.

    • -signed, someone in basic research who managed to get funding in Europe after getting shot down in Canada.

    • “… this increase has usually been minor, and coupled with a large transfer of funding from basic research to applied research aimed at the private sector.”

      Exactly. So funding for basic research is revectored into a subsidy for private business, which has never invested enough in R&D to make Canada competitive.

      The worst part, to my mind – applied research is based on a foreseeable goal, with a quantifiable value. The goal and its value are apparent to everyone with expertise in the field. So applied research can never produce sustainable advantage or differentiation. Whereas basic research can lead to a concentration of advanced knowledge and know-how that’s very difficult to match and really can lead to a sustainable advantage for the host country.

      • In the US, where even the mainstream of the Democratic party make the more sane elements of the CPC look positively leftist (and not forgetting the Republicans), there is widespread, cross party support of government funding of basic science. They believe that such research is the necessary and natural domain of government support since there are no immediate outcomes and it would be antithetical to expect the investments of share-holders of companies to pay for blue sky research. This, in spite of such efforts hugely expanding the size of government. The private sector takes care of most aspects of applied research, the public sector, pure research. The NIH alone has a $30 billion US budget. There are some systems to support applied research but the lion share of government funding goes into supporting work that has no immediate outcome or pay-off. What is also different about the US is a relatively healthy biotech and venture capital sector that jumps on the results of the pure science in the early years. This need is left to blow in the wind in Canada despite blustering from various quarters. Indeed, it is easier to license discoveries to US companies than Canadian.

        The Canadian government should rethink their philosophy of the role of government in funding research, develop mechanisms to attract high risk ventures and trust the fact that the post war years have repeatedly shown that squeezing the research lemon before its ripe is both counter-productive and produces nothing of value. Instead, we have the government-appointed head for the National Research Council (John MacDougal) saying (1): “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”. Words cannot…..

        (1) http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/05/13/canada_and_science_nrc_will_now_only_do_science_that_promotes_economic_gain.html

        • Basic research in the United States is a massive subsidy for the military industrial complex and for the private-for-profit health care industry, both which primarily now benefit the wealthy, and not the majority, which is why both American political parties, who have been captured by the wealthy, support it.

          The system is structured so the general taxpayer takes all the risk and pays all the costs, while the wealthy collect the government contracts (on the military side), and the rentier income streams from patent protection piggy-backing on top of all that publicly funded basic research (on the health side).

          The general population doesn’t even get basic health insurance for all the basic health research they fund through their taxes, and military veterans get a substandard British-style NHS, instead of the gold-plated taxpayer subsidized private insurance the wealthy Americans get.

  7. Conservatives only look at short term benefits despite long term consequences

    • Yes, only conservatives do this. Everyone else on the planet is very very wise and never ever makes a decision based on short-term gains. Ever.

      • A few liberals are in the same boat but I can’t find a conservative who looks at long-term effects

        • And I’m sure you’ve done an exhaustive, scientifically rigorous survey in order to substantiate your conclusion. I mean, it’s not like you just pulled a sweeping generalization out of your rear end or anything like that . . .

  8. I am writing this comment from a conference-accommodation room at the University of Waterloo, where I just finished attending the Canadian Conference on Computational Geometry. This year several talks had to be given by proxies, because the original authors couldn’t get visas to come to Canada to attend a scientific conference.

    It sometimes happens that someone from a place like China will be refused a visa by his or her government, if they’re afraid that the person might not want to come back. But I can’t recall seeing more than one of those at a single conference. This time there were at least three… and this time it wasn’t the researchers’ own governments refusing to let them come to Canada. It was the Canadian government refusing to let them enter.

    Lots of students at that conference. Seeing what I saw isn’t going to encourage them to settle in Canada after they graduate.

    • The Canadian government wasn’t refusing to let them in, all our embassy staff are on strike. There’s a bit of a difference.

  9. This is a truly excellent article that I am cross-posting as widely as my limited social media savvy will allow.

    Our government is doing a bang up job of moving in exactly the wrong direction. Governments are terrible at picking winners. They are excellent at funding high risk, high reward research as Tony Lawson (RIP) so eloquently observed.

    • Just noticed the misspelling. Apologies, can’t find a way to edit

  10. The trouble today is that vested interests are supplying the funding. We are spending globally an inordinate amount of funding on “man made” climate change. Want to study the breeding habits of the pink toed leopard? No funding. Make an application to study the effects of man made climate change on the breeding habits of the pink toed leopard and you will get funding. The UN and its associated agencies continue to pound the drum for increased funding for climate and sustainability studies to the detriment of everything else. Instead we should be funding climate studies (not exclusively man made) in proportion to monies allocated to other branches of science just for the purpose of blue skying.

    • Just for kicks, do you have evidence that:

      1) Climate change research is eating up funding to the detriment of other fields?

      2) Funding for climate research specifically excludes natural sources of climate change?

      • Don’t we have an over abundance of climate change studies already? Or are we electing to study the results of the climate change studies? While extreme climate changes have occurred throughout the natural history of the world they haven’t threatened populations of people on the scale we’re experiencing now. We’re already past the tipping point where another increase in global temperature can be contained. The domino effect will be devastating. A rise in ocean temperatures will annihilate the already vastly depleted fish stocks/phyto plankton. What we really need now are plans on how to extract people from chronic flood plains, and desert regions not suitable for human habitation, etc. and resettle them elsewhere. Now that will be a logistical and financial nightmare of such proportions that it could bankrupt entire third world countries, let alone those from the developed nations.
        Remember Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy? The bill for those cleanups might never actually be paid in full.

  11. any well-connected dumb & dumber can get funding in this ridiculous tribal society, the US. You have a great idea but no connections? — you don’t stand a chance: NOBODY will spend 3 minutes to read you. ZERO intellectual curiosity at all levels: top universities, NASA, CIA, you name it. But go the kartrashian way and *leak* a sextape and u’ll be rich and famous the next second …

  12. So somebody explain exactly how the public benefits.

    A) Taxpayer pays for basic research.
    Scientist makes a big discovery.
    Pharmaceutical company makes a patented protected drug off the research and reap big profits for banksters and the 1%.
    The taxpayer has to pay for obscene patented protected drug prices for a generation to use the drug.

    It looks to me that the banksters, the pharmaceutical companies, and the 1% are looking for the taxpayer to take on the riskiest unprofitable part of the endeavor, funding the basic research, and getting none of the profits resulting from that research.

    The taxpayer pays for the research. Pays for the bloated salaries of the researchers and the doctors along the way. Pays for the bloated price for the patented protected drug. And the pharmaceutical company and its 1% shareholders reap all the profits.

    B) So one has all this fantastic basic medical research happening in the USA. But 30 million Americans still don’t have health care. And more and more average Americans are forced into becoming medical tourists, travelling to Mexico and Asia to receive medical treatment at an affordable cost.

    C) So there is all this uproar in the United States about STEM education, yet (Emily’s heroes) Jobs, Gates, and Zuckerberg were/are furiously lobbying to allow more H1B visas so they can important STEM workers and keep the salaries of STEM workers in the United States depressed, so their companies can make larger profits instead of paying their workers a fair wage, and then use offshore corporations and transfer pricing techniques to prevent those profits from being taxed.

    Just everywhere you look from banking to medicine to technology, the model is socialize the costs onto the taxpayer, and privatize the profits.

    • And your solution is to leave it to philanthropy (the 0.1%) to fund basic science and save the tax payer money? Philanthropy often comes with strings attached and is directed to projects that pull the heart strings. Highly doubtful that cancer philanthropists are interested in fruit flies, worms and yeast even when these are the creatures that gave us the greatest insights and leads into drugs for leukemia and breast cancer. Governments direct money to all sorts of expensive areas which many individuals debate the merit of. Typically, these are the areas that no one else will fund but if left unfunded will trigger societal dysfunction over time (defence, social welfare, research, etc).

      When asked what basic science would do for the defence of the United States, Robert Wilson once said (in justifying the building of Fermi Lab) that: “In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”


      If this is not the highest role of government, I don’t know what is.

      • No. My argument is that the public is being asked to pay for stuff that primarily now, in the current systems, the top quartile of society. The costs and the risks are being piled onto the taxpayer, than the profits and the benefits are accruing to the wealthy.

        Of what use is all that basic medical research in the United States if the middle class on down doesn’t have access to adequate medical insurance. Obama is a financailist stooge. Instead of single payer health care. He gave America Romneycare, and sold out to the hospitals, the private health insurance companies, and the pharmaceutical companies to do it.

        Many of our current economic structures are fundamentally flawed. The financialization of Western economies has burdened the taxpayer with the risks and the costs, and provided the banksters, the 1%, and say the upper quartile of society with relatively risk-free rentier income streams, and the means to tax avoidance on these rentier streams. Financialization of an economy is socialism for the rich, and enslavement for the masses.

        It has distorted who the prime beneficiaries of what we once thought to be the common good or societal good…i.e. things like basic research. The general public is no longer the prime beneficiary of basic research. Financialization means the costs and risks are borne by the public, but the benefits flow primarily to the wealthy.

        The Liberal Party is now in the process of being captured by one of these American influenced financialists (who control both the Republicans and Democrats in the US) in Chrystia Freeland, who instead of blaming financialists, blame everybody else.

        Increasing income inequality over the last generation is primarily caused by the financialization of the economy, which creates no new wealth, and only steals it from the productive sectors of the real economy, from workers, and from the savers.

        So Wells pumping the simplistic notion that “basic research” is good, in an era where the banksters are on the march is science-fan-boy naivete.

  13. It’s hard to have ‘vision’ with big oil’s foot on your neck.

  14. Surely we can agree that BOTH targeted and flight-of-fancy science are crucial assaults on our current level of humanity’s ignorance.

    I am thrilled that we have Gleevec, and that an unpredictable route of inquiry brought us to it.

    All in all, though, for the sake of humanity in general (the “greatest good”), I am cheering Bill Gates on for improved vaccine delivery to the harshest of places and for hygienic toilets that don’t use water. And I don’t mind a bit that Gates is using his geeky laser-focus to aim for a target, as I don’t mind that others wander aimlessly. You have to have both.

  15. I trained at the Lunenfeld from 2001-2006 when Dr Pawson was Director. At our annual retreat, I believe in the fall of 2003, I recall the hushed discussions on whether Tony might receive the Nobel that year. Sadly, it didn’t happen, and now it can’t. I’ll miss Tony for his vision and brilliance, although I didn’t interact with him often. Clearly, the world has lost an incredible scientist.

    It’s somewhat ironic that Dr Wosnick posted below. During both my PhD and post-doc training, I was proud to be directly funded from a studentship and then a fellowship award from the Canadian Cancer Society. As I understand it, those awards were discontinued a few years ago when the economy got bad. Without that funding, beginning very early in my career, I doubt I’d be a cancer scientist today. Also, the article above mentions young scientists potentially leaving Canada. I can relate. From my graduation cohort at the UofT in 2005-2006, very few PhD graduates stayed in Canada. Most of us are in the US.

  16. A terrible loss of a great Canadian scientist. For accuracy, this statement is incorrect “But the Harper government does not even need to heed advice from a dead science star it didn’t ask.” Dr. Pawson was invited to and attended meetings with Ministers in Ottawa. Minister Clement reached out to Dr. Pawson directly, seeking his highly valued opinion on health research in Canada as input into the 2007 science and technology discussions. (Former Dir of Policy, Office of Tony Clement and Director of Scientific Advancement and Public Policy, National Cancer Institute of Canada)

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