January 23, 1998


MRC grants bring mix of elation and disappointment

Folio Staff

The hallways were a mix of three parts disappointment and one part elation with the announcement of the recent round of Medical Research Council of Canada (MRC) grants.

Twenty-five per cent of U of A projects were funded, comparable to other years, says Dr. Robert Crawford, acting director of the Research Grants Office. It's also above the overall MRC success rate, the lowest in its history at 19.6 per cent. This leaves 322 Canadian projects, which meet international standards of excellence, not funded.

Success varied across the country. The University of Toronto matched the U of A's 25 per cent rate, while UBC Reports says University of British Columbia is launching a letter-writing campaign after 30 UBC projects funded last year received no money this round.

Dr. Moira Glerum was one of the elated 25 per cent at the U of A. She describes herself as "ecstatic and incredulous," to have received $82,000 annually for the next three years plus a $38,000 equipment grant. This will enable her to keep her research assistant and graduate student working and "really get going on all the things I think are important to do right now." Glerum joined the U of A Department of Medical Genetics in May. She's researching the little-understood assembly of enzyme cytochrome oxidase, the last of the series responsible for generating energy in mitochondria and the one most often defective in neurodegenerative diseases.

But her elation is tempered. "I'm totally excited and then I feel bad in a way. I look at my colleagues who didn't get funded." Laying off technicians is part of the process, she says. "You just feel the morale. It's sinking so low."

She said her own heart sank January 14 when the MRC issued a news release announcing the low success rate and saying even successful grants were cut an average of 25 per cent the recommended amount. She was sure she wouldn't get money. "It's a combination of hopelessness and saying, well I just have to keep trying." She and other colleagues spent the next few days scouring the MRC Website for news.

A colleague found her name, leaving her on a definite cloud nine, she says. "But nothing we do is secure. In two-and-a-half years I'll be going through the mill again and worrying about the same things again."

For Dr. Diane Cox, chair of the Department of Medical Genetics, the MRC decisions were "devastating and short-sighted. I'm very disturbed about it," she says. Several genome-related projects were not funded. Of the genome-related applications for appointments to the department, or cross appointments with other departments, two out of two were not funded. In the general applications, only one of five was funded.

"That's really a modest concern," says Cox. The real issue is that the government has expressed a belief in biotechnology and isn't backing it with money. Judging from responses to her letter-writing campaign, she says politicians seem to think commercial

interests will pick up the shortfall. This ignores the important contribution of basic research, she says. It will also lead to a shortage of trained professionals for the very biotechnical industries the government thinks will carry the ball.

The effects on the medical genetics research are devastating. "It means you just bring it to a close," she says. "You just get rid of the post-docs and the technicians . . .either you tide them over, or they go." When they go, it's usually south to the U.S. where there is funding. New post-docs and graduate students aren't even considered.

"You can't turn this [research] on and off like a tap," says Cox. "You lose so much, even if it's a temporary down . . . It's very difficult to stay competitive."

When only 40 per cent of well-established researchers are getting funding, the future is in trouble, says Cox. "The people of Alberta and the people of Canada should know what's happening to their futures." Future health care and the biotechnology industry depend on research funding.

"I think the biotechnology industry has to realize the danger and get the message to the politicians," she says.

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