I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 26 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Science and Research.
Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the House order of June 23, 2022. Members are attending in person in the room and remotely by using the Zoom application.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108 and the motion adopted by the committee on Monday, September 26, 2022, we are continuing the study of the international moon shot programs.
I would like to make a few comments for the benefit of the witnesses and members. Please wait until I recognize you by name before speaking. For those taking part by video conference, click on the microphone icon to activate your mike, and please mute yourself when you are not speaking. With regard to interpretation for those on Zoom, you have the choice at the bottom of your screen to select either floor, English, or French. For those in the room, you can use the earpiece and select the desired channel.
Kindly remember that all comments should be addressed through the chair. For the members in the room, if you wish to speak, please raise your hand. For members on Zoom, please use the “raise hand” function. The clerk and I will manage the speaking order as best we can, and we appreciate your patience and understanding in this regard.
In accordance with our routine motion, I am informing the committee that all witnesses have completed their required connection tests in advance of the meeting. The clerk will inform the chair if any witnesses have not completed the test.
I'd like to now welcome our two witnesses for today. From the Canadian Brain Research Strategy, we have Dr. Young. Online, we have Dr. Blais, from the Université de Sherbrooke. Welcome to both individuals.
You will each will have five minutes for your opening remarks.
We will start with Dr. Young.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and committee, for your work and attention to the cause of science.
I was born in Labrador City and I grew up in Fort McMurray, Alberta. I would never have dreamed of this opportunity to speak in front of all of you today.
I am Jennie Zin-Ney Young. I am the executive director of the Canadian Brain Research Strategy. I have a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Alberta. I worked at MIT in the U.S. for 14 years as the scientific chief of staff for Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa and also for current Picower Institute director Li-Huei Tsai. I came back to Canada to tackle the challenge of understanding the brain in a different way, and I hope you'll see why from what you'll hear today.
Our brains are at the centre of everything that we do and are. They store our memories, create our passions, produce our art and commerce, and shape and build our societies. Brain injuries and impairments can impact everything that makes us, from what we perceive to what we feel to how we think, plan and interact with each other and the world.
The sad reality is that virtually every Canadian family has someone impacted by a neurological disorder, brain injury, mental illness or addiction. You yourself likely know someone. Increasingly, we are seeing people like Lou, from Ottawa. He was one of many people we spoke to in building our national strategy. Lou has Parkinson’s disease. One of his children has autism, and he is taking care of a parent with early dementia.
As our population ages, the burden of brain disorders will only increase. Unfortunately for the vast majority most brain disorders, including mental illness, there are limited treatment options or none at all. For many, there are no cures.
Every Canadian deserves to have a healthy brain to help them realize their full potential throughout their lives. We need a national research strategy for the brain, because here's the challenge: Every human brain is composed of 100 billion cells—as many as there are stars in our galaxy—making 1,000 trillion neuronal connections with each other. Each connection shapes our unique experience and genetics, and each one is constantly changing. Understanding the most complex biological system ever known might seem like an impossible task, but we have to rise to the challenge, because the better we know how a system works, the more likely we are able to fix it when it breaks. The only hope and path to treatments and cures is to gain new knowledge through research.
We are on the threshold of making remarkable advances in understanding the brain, ones that could lead to treatments and cures in our lifetimes for our families. Canadian neuroscientists and mental health researchers—and we rank in the top five in the world—are poised to to make a major leap, a moon shot, in brain science. New technologies like artificial intelligence have the potential to radically change what is even possible in brain research, and new data on the brain is accumulating faster than at any time in history.
Imagine the implications of a breakthrough in a disease like Alzheimer's. Imagine the cost savings and reduced burden on our health care system when we are able to improve on the health outcomes of millions of Canadians with better treatments and by having healthier brains.
Brain disorders cost the Canadian economy $61 billion per year, and this number is growing. For a tiny percentage of that amount, we can implement a national strategy now to leverage the unique strengths we have in our brain research ecosystem and, more importantly, to improve the lifelong well-being of our citizens, families and communities.
The human mind is our most valuable resource in the world. The U.S. has invested in their national BRAIN initiative, and the EU, Korea, Japan and China have taken similar measures. From South America to Africa to Oceania, many other nations have brain research initiatives under development, but we have an incredible and unique opportunity before us for Canada to lead a global paradigm shift in brain research.
The Canadian brain research strategy is a pan-Canadian, community-led effort that unites a broad, diverse coalition across the brain research ecosystem. This committee has heard from some of our scientific leaders, and there are 13 briefs from some of the non-profits and health charities in our coalition. This strategy also comes from indigenous stakeholders, patients and their families. More than 25 organizations funding brain research are also at the table, and we are bringing in industry partners.
We have the network and partnerships and a unified, consolidated vision, and we have a responsibility to make a difference in brain health and disease for all Canadians and for the world.
Good morning, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today.
In my opinion, moon shot programs can help Canada play a leading role on the global stage in areas of strategic importance. Over the next few minutes, I will outline some elements that I believe may help make moon shots successful, as well as some aspects to be wary of. These comments build on my experience participating in large-scale U.S., European and Canadian quantum research efforts.
First, curiosity-driven research is at the root of innovation. Had the founders of quantum physics focused on innovation rather than understanding the inner workings of nature at the atomic level, they would probably have devoted their efforts to improving the telegraph or candle wax. Had this been the case, technologies that have transformed society and whose development relied on quantum physics—such as computers, lasers and GPS—would not have been possible. In short, technological revolutions are founded on curiosity-driven research, and any moon shot program should reflect that.
Second, by definition, moon shots have ambitious, big-horizon objectives. The level and, importantly, duration of funding should reflect that.
An example of an existing program that does this well is the Canada first research excellence fund, or CFREF, which offers support over seven years. CFREF funding at the Université de Sherbrooke has been transformative. The seven-year duration of the support allowed us to put forward a long-term vision for the development of quantum science and technology, and to act on that vision.
Another characteristic I recommend moon shot programs to replicate is the flexibility of the funding. Indeed, with most funding opportunities, there is little room for new ideas on how to best use the funds once the grant starts. Large-scale and long-term initiatives should be given the latitude to make the most out of the allocated funds.
In the case of Sherbrooke's CFREF, this flexibility and the long-term nature of the program allowed us to take actions that led to the creation of the quantum science innovation zone in the Sherbrooke area to support Sherbrooke-based start-ups and attract companies from abroad. In short, it allowed the Institut quantique to have an impact well beyond producing excellent science. This was made possible thanks to the long duration of the funding and its flexibility.
Another lesson from this example is that supporting centres of excellence can lead to outsized impact. These centres help create the capacity to attract talent and rally the efforts of the broader research community so that we can deliver on ambitious projects.
Moon shots also mean making choices. To have an impact, moon shots should be based on Canadian issues and build on our strengths. Examples that come to mind are aging, biodiversity, climate change and quantum.
For quantum specifically, there are examples of moon shot programs in other countries from which we may get inspiration. In all cases that I am aware of, those programs were not prescriptive about the specific scientific and technological goals, which were instead left to be defined by the broad community of academic, industry and government players.
More generally, moon shots can help inspire the next generation of scientists and innovators. By supporting ambitious research projects, Canada can show young people how science and innovation are exciting and rewarding fields to work in and encourage them to pursue careers in these areas.
Let me now briefly mention a few aspects to be wary of.
First, funding opportunities typically focus on operations or infrastructure. Examples are CFREF, which funds operations, and CFI, which funds infrastructure. However, large-scale efforts need both. This should be baked into the program or, at the minimum, there should be coordination among funding agencies.
Moreover, international collaboration will certainly be important to any moon shot. It can be difficult for research money to flow across borders, but ways to incentivize key international players to actively contribute to these efforts should be built into these programs.
Attracting talent to Canada, including established researchers and students, is another important piece. However, despite the labour shortage, it seems to be getting more difficult rather than easier to do so.
Finally, training is a crucial piece. For example, it is a fact that we are not training enough students and post-docs in quantum science and technology. A quantum moon shot—and it's probably true of any moon shot—should support academic institutions in training more students and developing innovative programs to help create pipelines of capable talent that can meet the needs of moon shots, as well as the start-up ecosystem that will grow around these moon shots.
In summary, a moon shot program would help Canada remain at the forefront of science and technology. Moon shots should be based on Canadian issues and build on our strengths.
Flexibility and long-term support are crucial. Support to centres of excellence will help make these moon shots a success.
Yes. Thank you for the question.
Let me switch to French to answer the question. That will be easier for me.
When filing the grant application, you need to indicate how the funds will be spent in the years covered by the grant. You also need to indicate the number of students and postdoctoral students you will have and what equipment you will be using, among other things. The reality is, as I said earlier, it's hard to predict the pace of scientific progress and needs from year to year. For example, it's imperative that the programs allow us to acquire new equipment instead of hiring a certain number of students as planned. That's what's really going to change the game.
We're developing ecosystems as part of international moonshot programs. For example, in Sherbrooke, we're developing them through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund. To do it, we need the most talented scientific researchers and students, but we also need people to manage the research. However, very few major grants, if any, provide funding for these research staff, and without them productivity drops drastically.
So my answer is this: We need the flexibility to decide where to allocate budgets and to hire more staff, something research grants typically do not provide.
I'd like to thank the two witnesses, Dr. Young and Dr. Blais, for being here.
Dr. Young, you submitted a brief in February 2022 as part of our Successes, Challenges and Opportunities for Science in Canada study.
Today, you talked about the mind, the human brain, and what that all could mean. You gave examples related to autism, Parkinson's disease, Asperger's syndrome and other mental illnesses. You also talked about a “dementia zero” goal by 2050, and aging-related illnesses.
Are there targets for each degenerative disease? Can you briefly explain what leads you to be able to predict what's to come in25 years for dementia, when you can't do that for autism or Asperger's syndrome?
To summarize the six areas, what we're really talking about is investing in people and, as Dr. Blais mentioned, having stability and flexibility in funding. It's not about just targeting a specific scientific question but about raising up the entire ecosystem. It's investing in our brain science workforce across all sectors in academia, in industry and in other areas. It's being able to scale up brain research from our smallest research centres to the largest hubs.
The six areas are specific ways that we can promote collaborative transdisciplinary and open brain research. It is our unique strength in Canada that we can do this. I worked at major research centres in the U.S.; this is something only Canada has. This is the only way that we're going to make any impact in studying something as complex as the brain.
Some of the six initiatives are around open science, which is the sharing of data, and sharing of protocols and materials. It's that attitude of sharing that we have in Canada. As we all know, research can be very competitive for these dollars, but in Canada we have this culture of sharing. It's about having research platforms, and that's speaking to shared resources.
Dr. Guy Rouleau spoke to this committee. He said that they were able to attract a candidate who had applied for a job in Germany and was offered 10 million euros. The candidate went to McGill, because in Germany they need 10 million euros to set up their lab, but at McGill they have the resources and infrastructure there that are being shared. It's not their own; it's being shared, and it's going to be collaborative.
We want to do that for the entire ecosystem in Canada. We have 30 research leaders and directors of institutes across the country, from major centres like Toronto all the way to Lethbridge and to Carleton University here in Ottawa. We want to leverage that excellence.
That's what our priorities are about. It's being able to bring out the excellence across the country together. It's a unique and special thing we have in Canada.
Thank you for the question.
As you said, the Institut quantique de Sherbrooke enjoys significant investments, both federal and provincial. Over the past 10 years, we've developed a vision for developing an ecosystem that allows our students to take great ideas from basic research and create their own businesses. This has led to the emergence of several startups in the quantum field in Sherbrooke.
With support from the Quebec government, this eventually led to the establishment of a quantum sciences Innovation Zone. You alluded to that earlier. We're talking about a major investment of over $200 million here, to support these startups and attract businesses from outside, many of which have already begun to set up shop in Sherbrooke.
In our city, as in most places in the country that are home to major centres in the quantum field, our number one export used to be talent. We used to train people who then went to work abroad for the big guys like Google, IBM and so on. But thanks to the efforts we made over the past few years, we're now able to keep that talent in Sherbrooke. We invest in training these individuals and we can benefit from their know-how during the productive years of their career.
As I said in my remarks, it was really the stable, long-term, flexible funding that allowed us to develop this vision and move nimbly toward this idea.
The National Quantum Strategy, which represents a $360 million investment over seven years, was announced just a few weeks ago. It's a great first step.
On the other hand, this initial strategy, if I can call it that, uses existing programs to distribute funds very evenly but also randomly in response to small grant applications from small groups across the country. This approach will yield some nice research, but it will be uncoordinated, and that will prevent it from being a moonshot program. So it's time to be a little more strategic.
That's why I really like the idea of moonshot programs. The most important thing is to support centres of excellence in quantum research, which are few and far between in this country. They can really help bring the community together. With their ecosystem and research excellence, they're able to produce the results needed to make moonshot programs happen. That takes resources, obviously.
In short, my message is that we need to put a little more strategy in the National Quantum Strategy.
I'm going to allow Dr. Blais to continue on that line. I was going to go there anyway eventually, but I'll go there right now.
We've been hearing a lot in this committee and elsewhere in Parliament lately about the insufficient funding for training new talent—students and post-docs. The scholarships that are provided by the tri-councils have not gone up in 20 years.
It's all very well to have moon shots and great ideas and so on, but what I appreciate about your presentation is that you really set the background for what we need to do to make these moon shots successful.
On that specific item, what do you feel we have to do to make sure that students stay here in Canada to do their training? What would help to build your labs and help build the research programs? Is it important to make sure that the funding increases so that they can live dignified lives while working on these very important programs?
Thank you for the question.
There's a lot to say here so I'll limit myself to a few ideas.
First of all, student grants haven't increased for several years, so right now, students are quite frankly living below the poverty line. So that really needs to change.
Getting more young people into science and technology should be everyone's mission, and it's hard to do that right now. Scholarships alone will not do the trick. We also need to start early, and for that we need a national program to get young people interested in science and technology. Without that, we won't make it.
I would add that this isn't the first time the quantum field has changed our lives or been on the verge of it. It did that with the laser and today's computers. Without the quantum field, we wouldn't be talking to each other today on Zoom.
If we look at the results of that first quantum revolution, which happened around the 1950s, we can see that Canada doesn't have the requisite industries, including semiconductors, or businesses like Apple, Facebook and company. In research, Canada was there from the beginning of that revolution, but later on those industries didn't take hold in this country. They moved to the United States instead, and now they're in Korea and Taiwan.
So we need to invest more in research, but in a strategic way. We have to be ambitious and make choices. You can't excel at everything. That's why I really like the idea of moonshot programs. You have to choose the specific programs in which you will excel. Also, the entire chain, from basic research to marketing, should be a priority.
Thank you for that really great question.
There are a number of challenges that are brought up by open science. In Canada, we do have this culture of collaboration and sharing, despite the competition. However, there are often barriers for people who want to share their data. It's less about the culture issues, compared to a very competitive place, such as where I was at MIT; it's more about that infrastructure.
Dr. Blais also mentioned the need for staff to manage research that is being done. These are a lot of positions to enable the sharing of data, but there is no funding for those types of research positions, especially in the smaller centres. Those are the centres that would really benefit from being able to share their data and also to take part in research. Those are some of the challenges around open science.
I'm aware, and I think it's fantastic, that the government has a federal road map for open science and that the tri-agency is taking steps to try and make this happen for all grants that are funded by federal research. It makes sense. This is research done with public money, and it should be shared.
Thank you for that really excellent question.
You have brought up a number of challenges around ownership of intellectual property and things like that that come out from open science.
I'll address your point about industry first.
Open science does not preclude commercialization and industry being involved. In fact, in Canada, Biogen and Roche and a number of other companies have invested in open science projects. This is only in Canada. These are large multinationals, and it's because they know we will share this data and because the level of the data that they are sharing is not going to lead to commercialization immediately. This is just collecting the initial information. There are many steps before it gets to commercialization.
I just want to put it out there that commercialization and open science are not necessarily at odds and that having intellectual property is not necessarily at odds with sharing openly. It depends on the situation.
Thank you for the question.
One key aspect of the strategy is to use existing programs, particularly those of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Alliance Missions grants, which foster collaboration between university laboratories and industry. So, about half of the resources come from the council and are aimed at bringing products to market. A lot of money also goes to industry internships like Mitacs.
However, like I said in one of my previous answers, I feel there's room for more strategy in Canada's National Quantum Strategy, including supporting and fostering collaboration between centres of excellence, such as moonshot programs. This could help take us even further than this first draft of the strategy allows.
Thank you for the question.
Dr. Young talked a bit about this in one of her responses. Several issues come into play here, some of them related to intellectual property.
Intellectual property agreements need to be clear. They are usually negotiated one university at a time, and as far as I know, we have no national guidance on this. So that can make it a bit more complex, because if you have multiple university partners, each will have their own ways of doing things with respect to intellectual property.
Having said that, I think the Alliance grant program is a good start, because it helps businesses work together with industry.
On the other hand, in the quantum field, we must never forget that we have to do much more than work with industry. Fundamental discoveries have yet to be made. If we only support research done by university laboratories and industry, we risk missing out on a lot of basic research that's needed to develop technologies. It's important to monitor that, but we shouldn't just invest in the research aspect.
I will now come back to attracting and retaining talent. I set the scene for this earlier when I mentioned Canada's lack of investment. Normally, when we look elsewhere, things don't look so bad here. In this case, however, things do look pretty bad here. Canada is at the bottom of the list in the G7 when it comes to investment in research and development.
You said we were building on an attraction-based model, but now we're making sure we also make an effort to retain talent. Canada is the only G7 country to have lost researchers in the past six years. I point to the efforts of the University of Sherbrooke and some other universities, but when it comes to graduate school completion, once again Canada is at the bottom of the G7.
It's all well and good to come up with a national quantum and other strategies or moonshot programs, but if we don't have the investments needed, how can we ensure we've got the best talent in our establishments and research centres like yours?
To compare to other countries, the U.S., of course, is a natural comparison. They had their BRAIN initiative from 2014 to 2024, and it's been extended. As of last January—just over a year ago—they had invested $2.4 billion in their BRAIN initiative, and it will be more than $5 billion when they are finished at the end of their 10 years.
The distinction is that it's gone to 1,100 grants and “hundreds of researchers”. We cannot compete with that scale of funding in Canada, but we have other strengths we can leverage to make our smarter strategic investments. That is one of the comparisons.
The EU has also had a brain initiative for 10 years. It started in 2013. They are now in their last phase of investing in infrastructure, and that was to the tune of almost a billion euros. Japan also has one, and that started in 2014. China and Korea also have their own brain initiatives, and these all started around the same time.
There are also emerging brain initiatives in Australia and New Zealand and Finland. Even non-OECD countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are forming their own brain initiatives, and there is a brain research initiative in Africa as well.