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Canadian Health Research in the Trump Era

By March 24, 2017January 24th, 2024No Comments

Given the difficulties associated with Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) grant applications in the past year, scientists in the Vancouver area and across Canada may be looking to the United States for funding now more than ever. Per a report on Canadian health research conducted in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, over 13% of funding came from foreign sources, the largest of which included the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. As a significant portion of Canadian health research relies on support from American institutions, Canadian scientists have a vested interest in the well-being of American funding agencies and American scientific institutions in general.

Before his inauguration in January, President Trump announced that he would be asking Dr. France Córdova and Dr. Francis Collins, the Obama-appointed directors of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NIH, respectively, to remain in their positions. While other institutions have lost seasoned leaders and staff members, NIH and NSF have been able to maintain consistent leadership and will surely benefit from experienced veterans overseeing the transition period.

President Trump has also signed the “INSPIRE Women Act” and the “Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act”, two new bills encouraging the recruitment of more women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) positions at both NSF and NASA. These bills signal a supportive attitude to both women and researchers in general; however, they are at odds with other steps his administration has taken. For example, employees of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and various US national parks have received orders to cease publishing their findings and posting about their work on social media. While some of these orders have been rescinded after public backlash, they still signal a troubling silencing of ecological and environmental science that is familiar to many Canadian scientists who have previously worked under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration. Likewise, President Trump’s statements denying the established science behind vaccinations and climate change have eroded support for the new administration among many scientists.

Further discouraging to most scientists is the expectation that President Trump will be making severe budget cuts to finance increases in military spending. On February 27, Trump announced plans to decrease non-defense discretionary spending (a category that includes NIH and NSF, among other sources of health and science research funding) by 10.5%. On March 16, the White House released a so-called “skinny budget” for the 2018 fiscal year (with details to be expanded in May) that shocked researchers across the continent. This budget included a $6 billion cut to the NIH budget and similar 20% cut to the Department of Energy. The EPA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are both slated to take immense cuts, especially to research funding. Other details in the budget, including calls for a restructuring of the institutes and centres at NIH, or neglecting to even mention the NSF or USDA, are especially troubling to researchers. This budget must still be approved by congress, which has historically shown bipartisan support for scientific and health research, and is expected to face widespread resistance.

The executive order banning citizens of seven countries from travelling to the United States has also had immediate negative consequences for researchers in both the US and Canada. Many researchers are citizens of the seven countries and are unsure of their ability to enter or exit the United States, for example, to attend international conferences or deliver invited lectures. Some have suggested that US conferences be moved to other countries so that citizens of the seven banned countries might attend. This, however, merely means that US researchers who are unsure of their ability to travel will forego attending instead. The details of the executive order have yet to be finalized, but the status of the US as a world leader in scientific research can only be hurt by ignoring modern science’s global, egalitarian nature.

Researchers in both the US and Canada have begun voicing their opposition to many of the Trump administration’s policies. A “March for Science” is being planned for Earth Day (April 22) in Washington, DC and over 300 satellite marches are being coordinated in cities across the world. As of mid-March, these marches have been endorsed by over 60 scientific societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Genetics Society of America, the American Society for Cell Biology, the Society for Neuroscience, and the international honour society, Sigma Xi.

Since the election, some researchers have been vocal about getting involved in federal politics and encouraging other scientists to do the same. Dr. Michael Eisen is a genetics researcher at UC Berkeley who has announced plans to run for Senator Dianne Feinstein’s California seat in 2018. With no previous experience in politics, it is unclear how successful his bid will be. However, STEM candidates can look to a newly-formed grassroots organization, 314 Action, which aims to support scientists running for office. According to the 314 Action website, over 100 potential STEM candidates have signed up for candidate training in early March.

As for scientists in the Vancouver area, the impact these changes in the US will have on Canadian research is not yet known. The extent to which the Trump budget cuts will impact NIH- and NSF-based funding opportunities for Canadian scientists will not be certain until a budget is finalized. For some, this is an opportunity for Canada, and Canadian institutions are already seeing spikes in applications from students and scientists in the US and across the world. However, if one views science as a collaborative endeavour, rather than a competition, any changes that erode the scientific enterprise in US will have negative consequences across the world. This is perhaps the right moment for Canadian scientists to get involved in the defense of science and scientific integrity.

The Vancouver affiliate of the March for Science will take place at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on April 22.

Tamara Korolnek is a Vancouver cell biologist who moved back to Canada after nearly a decade of living in Washington, D.C. While her research has focused on nutrient homeostasis within cells and tissues, she is also deeply interested in politics and scientific communication and freelances as a science writer and editor.