By Russell Williams
and John Muscedere
The federal government has announced the end of funding for its Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program. This is not good news for Canadians.
The program has long been touted as the jewel of the federal government’s sciences research support – and programs around the world have been modelled after it.
What makes it special?
The program funds pan-Canadian networks that focus on issues of wide benefit and interest to Canadians. These networks overcome the barriers of geography, academic disciplines, sectors and silos by linking like-minded science-based researchers, knowledge users, citizens, not-for-profit organizations, students and industry – for anywhere from five to 15 years.
The NCE-funded networks pool efforts and resources to do what no single organization or group of researchers can do alone.
In addition to funding research, NCE networks mobilize research evidence into policy and practice changes. They also provide training for the next generation of scientists, academics and clinicians that’s not available within the confines of traditional academic or professional training.
Now that’s all over.
The government announced a New Frontiers in Research Fund that will be phased in to replace the federal NCE program and will support research that is “fast-breaking and high-risk.”
While government funding for scientific research is welcome, this new fund does not offer the longer-term funding required to put that research to work to benefit Canadians and our economy. The unique training that NCE networks provide will also be lost. And perhaps most notably, the value of distinct communities devoted to areas of importance to Canadians is lost.
When an NCE network is established, it’s with the understanding that there could be a stable 15 years of funding, so substantive issues can be tackled and plenty can get accomplished. In providing long-term funding, the NCE program recognized that there are no quick fixes when it comes to complex challenges around important issues for the health, safety and well-being of Canadians.
The loss of the NCEs will be felt across the country. And not just in academic settings.
As an example, the Canadian Frailty Network (CFN) was funded under the NCE program in 2012 and is Canada’s only network focused on improving care for older adults living with frailty and supporting their caregivers. An integral part of its work involves patients and citizens in all activities – from priority setting to evaluation. With the cancellation of the NCE program, CFN’s funding will stop in 2023 at the end of its second term.
CFN is devoted to an enormous concern today: how we care for older Canadians. In the 2016 census, Canadians 65 years and older outnumbered children for first time. The most rapidly increasing segment of the population is individuals over 80 years old and over 50 per cent of those over the age of 80 are frail. For certain populations such as the Indigenous and veterans, frailty onset is earlier and significantly higher.
A large, growing proportion of our health and social care spending is, and will increasingly be, focused on older Canadians living with frailty. From a societal perspective, frailty also places large burdens on family and friend caregivers, including financial, social and productivity costs.
So what does the end of NCE funding mean for these Canadians?
Significant transformative research underway will not be mobilized into practice and policy. There will no longer be a focused, co-ordinated approach to putting research evidence into practice to not just treat but delay frailty, and improve older Canadians’ quality of life.
Canadians committed to this task – researchers, patients and their caregivers, clinicians, policy-makers and others – will no longer have a forum to exchange ideas and learn from completed research.
Training the next generation will fall by the wayside and frailty research will not align with the objective of “fast-breaking and high-risk” research under the new research fund.
The need for system change is real and significant for older Canadians, their families, and for those on the front lines delivering care.
Who will take on the mantle to focus on older adults living with frailty?
Frailty is just one example of the challenges addressed by the NCE approach. There are other NCE networks producing socio-economic benefits for Canadians by addressing equally complex problems such as those posed by cancer, the Arctic, marine environments and technology in aging. These will also be lost when the NCE program ends.
Alternative funding mechanisms are needed to sustain the outstanding work of the Canadian Frailty Network and other NCEs so that Canadians can continue to reap the return on the government’s investment.
Russell Williams is chair of the board of directors of Canadian Frailty Network, and senior vice-president, mission, at Diabetes Canada. He is also is a member of the board of directors of BioCanRx, an NCE network. Dr. John Muscedere is the scientific director and CEO of Canadian Frailty Network. He is also professor of Critical Care Medicine at Queen’s University, and an intensivist at Kingston Health Sciences Centre.