Monday, February 18, 2008

Academic Health Research in Canada

Recall my previous post concerning a recent editorial in the EMBO Reports on reviving our optimism for scientific research. Well, while I was searching around for some data on the state of academic health research in Canada I came across this recent editorial in the CMAJ. It is entitled "Getting Serious about Canadian Health Research". The authors argue that research is a fundamental public good. They also argue that "the research community must first persuasively explain the rationale for and evidence of a need for increased funding. Canadian taxpayers have a right to know what their hard-earned dollars will buy and how it will improve their health or the state of the economy, or both". Here is a sample from the editorial which shows how Canada lags far behind the US in terms of per capital expenditures on academic health research:

...the Canadian government needs to decide once and for all whether it is serious about being a meaningful global player in health research. To do so, it must vastly increase research outlays to the level provided by leading Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations. The United States, for example, will spend $28.9 billion on academic health research in 2007, or $95.37 per capita. Canada will spend $828 million, or $25.09 per capita. If government is not interested in being a global player, then it should give up the charade. Canada's researchers, who have proven they can do more with less, are ill-served by short-term promises followed by long-term disappointments. If the funding won't be there, our best and brightest scientists should be told honestly to shop abroad for a stable platform on which to build the careers into which so much of their hard work and our tax dollars have been invested. The Canadian public should then be disabused of expectations that our health care problems will be addressed by made-in-Canada solutions, reflecting Canadians' priorities and values.

This final sentence raises a number of issues that should be of concern to political theorists. Firstly, I believe theorists (in Canada and in general) are failing in the sense that we do not take seriously the fact that research is a fundamental public good. As I have opined before, the current divide between science and political theory is simply inexcusable. So normative theorists are partly to blame for the pitiful investment that is made in academic health research. For we ourselves often completely ignore such issues when we allegedly tackle society's most pressing problems. How many theorists in Canada, for example, are seriously engaged in theoretical work that pertains to health research?

By neglecting science we are failing our students, our citizens and our discipline. The gap between science and political theory is, in my mind, the most important gap in need of filling. Of course it is not a topic that can simply be addressed by extending the debates of the past 30 years or so in political theory. And that just reinforces the shortcomings of contemporary political theory. When we lose sight of the "big picture" of the moral and political landscape it is time for a major re-think. And we cannot afford to waste any more time. The meager investment we make in academic health research impacts not only the health prospects of Canadians, but also other values and aspects of our culture and society as a whole.

The academic work of normative theorists should not simply be "academic" work. It should help us diagnose the problems with the status quo and help inspire some sage prescriptions concerning how we ought to move forward. And theorists will be better positioned to do this if they take science more seriously.