Scitech | Measuring science in Nobels

Are prizes or policy causing pharmaceutical job losses?

Alfred Nobel’s will, signed in 1895, established the Nobel Prizes in order to  honour those who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” They are now the world’s most famous awards in their respective fields, particularly in science. Those who win a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine are often catapulted from complete obscurity to international acclaim.

With this in mind, one might be disappointed to note that scientists at Canadian universities have won only one Nobel Prize in medicine. Frederick Banting and John Macleod won the award in 1923 for their discovery of insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas that is crucial for sugar metabolism. Compare this to Harvard Medical School, which lays claim to eight, and Rockefeller University, with fifteen, and it seems positively paltry. That isn’t to say that Canadians haven’t been earning Nobel Prizes in medicine – Ralph Steinman, a 2011 laureate, was a Canadian-born McGill graduate. Rather, there have been no prizes for research conducted at Canadian labs or universities.

Based on these statistics, some have started to fret about the state of scientific research in Canada. Nobel Prizes are noteworthy, no doubt – but they are a poor measure of overall research excellence. Attaching so much significance to their count often means biasing research endeavours toward discovery research, where the motivation is to be the first to publish. Researchers that aim to verify and reproduce results will never be candidates for Nobel Prizes, despite the equally crucial nature of their work. Reducing the contributions of Canadian scientists to a number of top-level awards won completely overlooks the value and impact of the vast array of scientific research.

Furthermore, the competition for these awards is intense. They are given once a year, for a single discovery in a broad discipline. The Nobel Prize is a childhood dream for any researcher, and for most, it will remain just that. Science is collaborative, awards are not; team members are often excluded, or recognized disproportionately less.

But for some, the value of Nobel Prizes may lie in more than just pride. Professor John Bergeron of the McGill Faculty of Medicine linked the lack of Nobel Prizes in medicine to the recent closure of the Merck, Boehringer-Ingelheim, and AstraZeneca pharmaceutical research labs in Montreal. The shutdown of these big labs, all within the past three years, led to the loss of hundreds of pharmaceutical industry jobs in the Montreal area, as well as “no pharma-based pre-clinical research in all of Canada,”  according to Bergeron.

“Nobel Prizes in medicine are an unquestioned indication of research excellence,” said Dr. Bergeron in an interview with The Daily. He makes the argument that the moves were in large part motivated by the desire to relocate labs to Nobel magnet cities like Boston.

Bergeron is likely correct in saying that big pharma is drawn to ground-breaking research that may yield new business opportunities. But the assumption that Nobel Prizes are somehow an accurate barometer of the current research climate couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact that the awards are usually given some ten, twenty, or thirty-odd years after the initial discovery was made means that they function more as a congratulatory afterthought than as a driver of innovation.

Pinning the future of Canada’s pharmaceutical industry to the number of awards ignores pressing policy issues that are driving business out of Quebec – but not out of Canada as a whole. Bergeron concedes that “Montreal was the Canadian headquarters for all pre-clinical research by big pharma. Now they have all left.” During the same two-year period, multinational pharmaceutical companies have announced millions of dollars of investment next door in Ontario. Sanofi Pasteur, a French company, plans to build a $101 million vaccine research and development facility in Toronto. Novartis, a Swiss company, and Teva, out of Israel, also plan to expand their presence in Ontario.

It seems likely that the political atmosphere is more to blame for the exodus of the pharmaceutical industry from Quebec. Even Nobel Prizes do not have the power to attract business in the face of unfriendly policy.

Bergeron points out that Canadian scientists suffer not from “a lack of training or expertise but solely because of a lack of opportunity.” Ambitious young researchers who graduate from McGill are forced to travel elsewhere to make their careers. Perhaps the immediate goal should be bringing back the jobs; from there, the Nobel Prizes will follow.

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