Neuroscientists fear brain drain as crucial funding disappears

It felt like the rug had been yanked out from beneath them, wrote The Globe and Mail March 11, quoting comments by Doug Crawford, Canada Research Chair in York’s Faculty of Health and a researcher at York’s  Centre for Vision Research, in a story about recent federal funding cuts.The Globe said Crawford, along with Mel Goodale of the University of Western Ontario in London and Doug Munoz of Queen’s University in Kingston, is frantically hunting for the money to keep a team of researchers who share brain-scanning equipment together.

“Instead of reaching for the sky, we are scrambling to stay afloat,” Crawford said. “I started out as a professor in the mid-‘90s and times were tight. Since then, we have always been building and improving and bringing Canada up to a place where it is not just keeping pace but leading in the world, in our case, of neuroscience research. To suddenly see so much of that investment and so much of that work being set back like this really is both frightening and disturbing for us.”

The researchers saw the team grants as a way to replace money they had received under an earlier Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) program that encouraged researchers to work together by awarding them group grants. Under the old program, which is being phased out, neuroscientists at York and Western shared a group grant of roughly $450,000 a year that runs out in October, the Globe said.

“Why is this so important to us? It to a large degree funds our permanent core research staff, the technical support,” Crawford said.

The Conservative government has defended its record on science funding, the Globe noted. But the area they are neglecting, many researchers say, is funding for the basic, curiosity-driven research that history has shown leads to important discoveries. Many worry that in favouring targeted funding, for example research in the automotive sector, the government will starve researchers trying to answer big questions like how the brain works.

Money for basic research comes from the three granting councils – the CIHR, the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada. All three have had to cut their budgets by five per cent, which is why the CIHR axed the team grants, saving $34.6 million over three years.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Obama administration has added US$10 billion to finance medical research.

That gloomy pall over China? It’s the growing threat of deflation

Only last summer – in what now seems like another epoch – China’s leaders were fretting about the perils of inflation, wrote The Globe and Mail March 11. Now they face the opposite problem. The latest figures out of Beijing show that consumer prices fell in February for the first time since 2002, raising the even more frightening prospect of deflation in the world’s third-largest economy.

Another concern is the fall in property prices. “My concern is that with property values plummeting, people feel poorer and spend less,” said Mitchell Bernard, a consultant on Asian business and professor emeritus in the Schulich School of Business at York University. “It’s all part of the mentality that pushes prices down.”

China is in much better shape than many Western countries, where faltering banks are hesitating to make loans, wrote The Globe and Mail. “The difference between China and other countries is that, for now, the financial system is working as a conduit to push reserves into the economy, whereas in other countries you don’t have credit flowing,” Bernard said. The downside is that with loans comparatively easy to get, companies will expand production and contribute to the overcapacity problem that helps fuel deflation in the first place, he added.

Yonge Street growth on rise

Things may be looking up for Aurora, according to York University professor and Urban Studies Program coordinator Douglas Young, wrote the Aurora Era-Banner March 9 in a story about building trends in that city. “It’s the way to go because the people who are going to be living there won’t have to drive everywhere, as some services will be available in their building,” he said. “It was a way of city building utilized in this region for decades up until after the Second World War. That’s how you built main streets – with low-rise mixed use buildings – and it has proven to be successful.”

It may seem strange to look to the past to build the future, Young said, but the old downtowns found in many municipalities had the right idea. Either way, it’s important to reign in sprawl sooner rather than later, he added. “Over the last few decades (the mindset) has been, ‘Let’s separate everything,’ but the problem with that is everything gets spread out and people just end up driving farther,” he said.

A shift in thinking could be good news for Aurora’s downtown revitalization hopes, Young said, as more multi-storey, mixed-use buildings in the area will ultimately attract more people and, thus, more customers for businesses in the neighbourhood. Such buildings could assist dwindling downtowns everywhere, he said. “You don’t have to look very far to see downtowns emptying out and, when that happens, the businesses lose customers,” Young said.

On air

  • York grad Hildah Otieno (BA Spec. Hons. ’05), Ontario representative to the Canadian Federation of Students and spokesperson for the Task Force on Campus Racism, spoke about the project on Radio Canada International March 10.