The eureka moment that many people imagine when they think about making a scientific breakthrough is often built on decades of work.
We spoke to four scientists at the University of Toronto’s Medicine by Design research group to learn more about what it takes to get to these groundbreaking discoveries.
“Science moves in jumps,” says Freda Miller, professor of molecular genetics and neuroscientist at the Hospital for Sick Children. “So you work and you work, and you understand a lot of things, but nothing is really that relevant to something commercial or therapeutic. And all of a sudden it’s like, bang! And something has jumped out and is immediately relevant today.”
Getting to those jumps takes a lot of preparation, and the truth is that companies aren’t particularly interested in funding research unless there’s a commercial application in mind.
“Companies don’t have the patience for that, they need predictable things to fund,” adds Miller. “Philanthropists are very oriented towards the end part of the discovery-to-therapy road. So the only people we have to fund that essential basic discovery moving towards translation is the government.”
In recent years, public science funding in Canada has been lagging behind other countries. This year’s federal budget came with a significant boost to science funding, but public trust in science is still waning.
So when it comes to spending taxpayer money, Philip Marsden, kidney doctor at St. Michael’s Hospital, believes scientists can do more to connect the public with the importance of their research.
“Historically scientists, and I’m one of them, we have not been good at championing why society should take a focused interest in science,” says Marsden. “And I would argue that at its baseline, mathematics and science, especially medical sciences, is the truth. It’s hard to come up with false facts with mathematics and basic medical research.”
Alison McGuigan, professor of biomedical engineering, adds that government funding is important because basic research is where the truly transformative ideas get their start.
“That’s where the internet comes from, that’s where these technologies that as a child you couldn’t even dream about because they’re outer space, right? The crazy ideas,” says McGuigan.
Michael Laflamme, heart pathologist at the University Health Network, agrees that finding companies to fund this type of research is difficult. Even with a great idea, if the payoff is decades down the line, it’s going to be a tough sell.
“The government can make those long-term investments, have the patience, and also be willing to let scientists fail sometimes,” says Laflamme. “It’s the science that we learn from the errors that really lead to major breakthroughs.”
“That’s where the real innovation comes from that’s going to really change the way the world works,” adds McGuigan, “and in the case of Medicine by Design, the way patients are treated in the next century.”