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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Toronto Rising

Last week's issue of Nature has an interesting article on biomedical research in Toronto [Toronto Rising].

The area around my building contains one of the densest populations of researchers in the world. The problem is that hardly anyone knows about it. Toronto isn't on everyone's radar in spite of the fact that there's a lot of high quality work being done.
Most of this basic research is concentrated in Toronto's city centre. Within two kilometres of the intersection of University Avenue and College Street, on the University of Toronto campus, there are nine research hospitals, roughly 5,000 principal investigators, and research budgets totalling about Can$1 billion (US$990 million) a year. Since 2005, 93,000 square metres of research space have been added in this zone, with twice as much more planned.

The main research engine is the University of Toronto, along with its affiliated research hospitals, including the Hospital for Sick Children, St Michael's, Sunnybrook and Mt Sinai. Also downtown is the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which employs 100 research scientists and is building an 110,000-square-metre site at the cost of Can$380 million.
There are problems with having so many labs—too many seminars! There's also a lot of internal competition for the best young scientists. (5000 P.I.s is a bit of an exaggeration. I think it's more like 1000.)
Where Toronto has had less success so far is in commercializing its academic research. Ontario has more biotechnology companies than any US state with the exception of Massachusetts and California. But judged against the amount spent on basic research in Toronto, the region generates only about half the commercialization opportunities it should, compared with successful biotech clusters such as Boston, says David Shindler, executive director of Biodiscovery Toronto, an organization that commercializes research.

"When you look at University Avenue and the billion dollars spent there annually, you're sort of saying, why aren't we the size of San Diego? Where are all the companies?" says Grant Tipler, chair of the Biotechnology Initiative, a non-profit organization committed to promoting the growth of biotechnology in Toronto and the surrounding region. He says there are a number of reasons Toronto has lagged — a research culture that values basic research more than entrepreneurship; lack of government funding for applied research; and a shortage of venture capital for early stage companies.
Since when did putting more emphasis on basic research become a bad thing?


  1. Nice to see the CCBR building there. I have to agree with you that emphasis on basic/fundamental research isn't a bad thing at all. In fact, I find it a bit concerning these days that UofT seems to be a little more commercialized in terms of the science these days. The labs that work next to me seem to be focused on producing a product rather than probing scientific questions, and once the money starts rolling in like that for labs that have something to sell, I've seen how it can frustrate and complicate the relationships between students and their supervisors. I heard of one student who couldn't publish or present his PhD work because of patent issues.

  2. I heard of one student who couldn't publish or present his PhD work because of patent issues.

    This is part of what I call the leash of industry. Having some funding come in to a lab from a private company can provide many benefits, and I've met people who were receiving such funding for their work and were happy with it. I've also met people who were receiving funding with significant strings attached, such as a prohibition on publication and presentation at conferences because of patent issues, at both the M.Sc. and PhD levels. Strangely enough, the harshest restrictions generally came from the smaller corporations run by former academics who'd left the academy to pursue a more financially-rewarding career in a spin-off company. The supposedly evil giant multinational corporations generally seemed to provide the money with the fewest restrictions, typically just a clause to please not sell the results to the competition right away, and a request to include the company's logo on presentations. The little spin-offs were the ones with onerous don't-talk-about-your-work-outside-the-lab restrictions. My ex-girlfriend could have gotten in trouble for talking about her work with me, because I wasn't a member of her lab.


    I wonder if that estimate of 5000 PIs has anything to do with counting PhDs (such that post-docs would get counted as PIs) or counting medical doctors as heads of research labs.

  3. I saw this hanging about in the lab I'm working in, maybe you should direct attention to it:

  4. Medicine has > 4700 research personnel with a primary appointment

    336 are in the basic sciences / 4100 are Clinical and 284 are in the Community Health area...

    Go here:

    and download the Synopsis of Research Activities

  5. Unfortunately, UoT also has this,

    " But what used to be considered a fringe movement among a marginalized tree-hugging clergy in the 1970s, has become a serious scholarly field of study, said Dennis O'Hara, a director at the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at the University of Toronto.

    Indeed, in 1991 U of T's St. Michael's College became the first university in North America to offer a doctoral degree in ecotheology. Since then, interest in the subject has grown so much that it's now taught at 25 colleges and universities in Canada alone.

    Ecotheology is a branch of theology that explores the connection between God and His creation, O'Hara explains. "It's recognizing the sacredness of creation," he said. "We find God not only in the Scriptures, but in creation.""

    It doesn't say what their budget is, but surely the money could be better spent elsewhere. This almost seems like a parody article.

  6. anonymous says,

    Medicine has > 4700 research personnel with a primary appointment

    336 are in the basic sciences / 4100 are Clinical and 284 are in the Community Health area...

    I suppose it hinges on one's definition of "principle investigator." I interpret that to mean the head of a research group.

    While it's true that most of the MD's in the clinical sciences will be doing research of one sort or another, I think it's a bit of a stretch to call them all principle investigators.

    Furthermore, if we are going to use a liberal definition of basic research then we have to include principle investigators from other faculty. There are several hundred in the Faculties of Arts & Science and Engineering.

    I think we are conveying a much more accurate picture of reality to the outside world if we say there are 1000 PI's (research groups) than if we say there are 5000.