Investments in Canada’s health research must be part of solution

As discussions around health transfers and the future of health care heat up, one aspect consistently overlooked is health research. Increasing federal investment in health research is key to addressing Canada’s current and future health care challenges, including transforming health care delivery and improving outcomes.

Consider how prevalent vaccines are in policy conversation today. Despite the emergence of more virulent strains of influenza over the last decade, it wasn’t long ago that vaccine research was not a priority.

Presently, a growing share of federal health research funding focuses on addressing knowledge gaps for specific federal objectives, otherwise known as strategic science. These investments are important, but this approach limits the funding available for fundamental or basic science, the investigator-led research that broadens established scientific understanding and knowledge.

Fundamental science proved instrumental in the response to COVID-19, as decades of fundamental research enabled the rapid development of diagnostics, therapeutics — and vaccines themselves. If Canada is going to innovate its way out of the challenges facing our health system, we need a renewed, long-term commitment to both fundamental and strategic research, one that focuses on tackling the diseases that most threaten our health and adapting health care to better meet the needs of Canadians.

The U.K. and the U.S. both outpace Canada’s health research investments and are looking ahead with a clear-eyed understanding of the pressing social issues that research can address, and the detrimental impact on innovation that chronic underfunding creates.

The U.K. aims to boost total research and development funding from 1.7 per cent of its GDP in 2017 to 2.4 per cent by 2027. Canada’s current investment in research and development across all sectors sits around 1.6 per cent of GDP, where it has hovered for years. The U.S. recently announced a $2.5 billion U.S. funding increase to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an increase of 5.3 per cent, for a total budget of $47.5 billion in 2023. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) annual budget, in contrast, increased by just over 1 per cent in 2020-21 to approximately $1.2 billion Canadian.

This paints a stark picture. Addressing this research gap requires the government to make increased, transformational investments in research, starting with doubling the budgets for the Tri-Council — the three federal research funding agencies, which includes the CIHR. Increasing funding for health research is vital for Canada to tap into the full potential of our nation’s research ecosystem, which is currently an important national economic driver.

Part of any increased investment must also include funding to ensure research moves into practice. This will lead to more innovative health care approaches and improvements to the delivery of care.

Implementing best practices uncovered through sound, evidence-based research will generate better health outcomes and contain the overall costs of our health system over time. It will also allow Canada to better commercialize health innovations and treatments, attract global talent and investment, and retain the generation of young scientists training in Canadian institutions.

Canada must identify and implement new approaches to address the pressures on our health system and society, including the health workforce shortage, the ongoing mental health and opioid crises, an aging population, and climate change. Fixes to these challenges can be developed through research, but only with increased federal government support.

If we’re going to succeed in fixing health care, increasing investments in Canada’s health research ecosystem needs to be a critical part of the solution.

Paul-Émile Cloutier is the president and CEO of HealthCareCAN. Dr. David Hill is the Integrated Vice President, Research & Scientific Director of Lawson Health Research Institute at St. Joseph’s Health Care & London Health Sciences Centre.