Tight budgets complicate Canadian health research reforms

A major overhaul of the grant and peer review system at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is underway. But will finances and objections from researchers hamper plans?

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) received some good news in the federal government’s pre-election budget this spring: a modest CAN$15 million increase in its $1 billion annual funding. But the extra cash comes with strings attached. The annual increases don’t begin until next year, and all of the new money is earmarked for specific programmes. $2 million is reserved for research on antimicrobial resistance, while the rest will go to the agency’s Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research (SPOR), which is focused on health-care efficiency and effectiveness. The budget for individual research grants has not been cut, but has failed to keep pace with inflation over the past several years. Read more in The Lancet.

Scientists are citizens, too

One of the common themes at last week’s Canadian Science Policy Conference in Halifax was the role of scientific evidence in policymaking, and specifically how scientists should go about providing it.

I was disappointed to hear several of the politicians and policymakers – and no small number of scientists – repeat the same tired mantra that researchers should just provide data, and keep their nose out of the politics. Read more on Science Borealis.

Exercise prescriptions endorsed

IMG_6714Doctors in two Canadian provinces are using exercise prescription pads to encourage patients to lead healthier, more active lifestyles. Doctors of BC (British Columbia) and the New Brunswick Medical Society (NBMS) offer free pads to their members so they can give patients a physical reminder of the exercise advice they’ve been given by their physicians.

Dr. Lynn Hansen, president of NBMS, said the pads are intended to help patients stick to their exercise regimes. “If they have something in writing, it provides a more permanent reminder of the conversation they had with their doctor,” she said. “We know not everything that is said in the doctor’s office is retained.” Read more in CMAJ.

BMA votes to end investment in fossil fuels

The British Medication Association set an international precedent with a vote to end its investment in fossil fuel companies. The motion also urged the BMA to switch its electricity supply to renewable sources and to help create an alliance of health care bodies to promote the health benefits of reducing greenhouse gasses. Read more in CMAJ.

Colleges set guidelines for marijuana

Physicians need to ensure conventional therapies are exhausted before prescribing medical marijuana, say many provincial colleges.

The seven provincial colleges of physicians that have issued guidelines are urging their members to take a cautious approach to prescribing medical marijuana.

The uncertainty over the risks and benefits of the drug and the lack of reliable data on its clinical effects are underlying caveats in guidelines from the colleges. The colleges advise physicians to take great care when deciding whether to prescribe cannabis to patients and to first ensure that conventional therapies have been exhausted. Read more in CMAJ.

Quebec doctors aim to fill marijuana knowledge gaps

Doctors in Quebec who prescribe medical marijuana will automatically take part in a province-wide research project to assess the risks and benefits of the drug.

Health Canada recently shifted responsibility for deciding who should have access to the drug onto the shoulders of individual doctors, raising concerns among physician groups, including the Canadian Medical Association, about the lack of robust data on the safety and effectiveness of marijuana used for medical purposes. Read more in CMAJ.

Sponsor a fish and save Canada’s experimental lakes

Fans of environmental science can now play a direct role in helping Canada’s unique Experimental Lakes Area continue to do the research it has done for decades.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development, based in Winnipeg, took over running the ELA on 1 April, after the federal government eliminated funding for the decades-old environmental research facility (see ‘Test lakes face closure’ and ‘Last minute reprieve for Canada’s research lakes’). The Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba have stepped in to provide money to run the facility and conduct research for the next several years, but more cash is needed to restore research at the ELA to its former levels.

So IISD has turned to the public. It launched an appeal on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo seeking contributions to expand research and make the ELA less dependent on government largesse. Read more in Nature.

Be wary of “prescribing” medical marijuana, CMA warns

Canadian physicians should be wary of “prescribing” medical marijuana under new regulations that come into effect on Apr. 1, 2014, says the president of the Canadian Medical Association.

“For the CMA, nothing has really changed,” says Dr. Hugo Francescutti. “Our stand has always been that there is insufficient scientific evidence to support the use of marijuana for clinical purposes.”

In addition, he says, the regulatory colleges have indicated that they have concerns about patient safety and will be keeping a close eye on doctors who do “prescribe” the drug. “They are telling us to tread very gently. So if you are about to authorize access to marijuana you better really have the evidence that shows that it has some beneficial impact for your patient, because if something untoward happens you will be held to quite a high standard.” Read more in CMAJ.

Don’t let my failure put you off, Ignatieff tells academics


Photo by Brian Owens.

Michael Ignatieff’s failed bid for Canada’s highest office must not put off other intellectuals from trying, he tells Research Canada editor Brian Owens.

The first thing Michael Ignatieff wants people to know, when discussing his thwarted political career, is that he is not bitter about the way it turned out. “I’m glad I did it, I have no regrets, it’s the way it is,” he says. “It would be stupid to get on the ice in a professional hockey game and complain when you get checked into the boards.”

There is no denying, though, that the Harvard academic, author and public intellectual had a particularly rough ride in his brief time leading Canada’s Liberal party, facing off against one of the most intensely partisan and tactically minded prime ministers in recent memory—Stephen Harper. And for portions of Fire and Ashes, a memoir reflecting on his political experiment, it is clear that the relentlessly personal attacks on his character and his motives in running for office left almost physical scars, a sense reinforced by the very physical metaphors, such as the hockey talk, he uses when describing his experiences. Read more in Research Canada.

Backyard Hockey A Bellwether For Climate Change

Volunteers track shifts in temperature with their homemade rinks.

Outdoor hockey games on suburban backyard rinks are an iconic part of the culture in Canada. Wayne Gretzky famously learned his trade on a homemade rink his father created every winter, and until recently the image of children skating on a frozen pond was featured on the back of the country’s $5 bill.

So when scientists in Montreal predicted that rising global temperatures would eventually lead to the end of outdoor skating in much of Canada, Robert McLeman and Colin Robertson, geographers at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, saw a way to get people interested in how climate change will affect them. Read more in Inside Science.