Under Pressure? Stem Cell Research and the Commercialization Imperative

Ubaka Ogbogu, Amir Reshef and Timothy Caulfield

Public funding for scientific research is increasingly subject to granting policies that require identification of near-term commercializable outcomes. This trend is part of a broader policy shift in Canadian science and technology strategy, anchored on what Prime Minister Stephen Harper has described as a “science powers commerce” philosophy. The main components of this philosophy include increased emphasis on applied research and on academy-industry partnerships, and lately, explicit political pressure on universities and colleges to recognize the imperative to commercialize as a primary mission. Scholarly commentaries on these trends have focused mainly on the adverse impacts that the dogged pursuit of commercial outcomes can have on the scientific research enterprise, and on a lack of emphasis on metrics for measuring practical effects and results. Still, a lot of unanswered questions remain about the true extent of this policy shift, and about what impacts it has on the way research funds are allocated, the way funding agencies function, and the way research is conducted.

In two thematically linked studies, we sought to answer these questions, and to assess how the focus on commercial imperatives is perceived by scientists, particularly those working in cutting-edge fields that are generally viewed as requiring (at a minimum) equal commitment to basic and translational research. In the first study, we gathered and analyzed documents and statements issued by Canadian federal and provincial governments and granting agencies, including requests for funding applications, strategic plans, budgets and policies. The main goals of this study were to chart the actual extent of the commercialization imperative as an element of Canadian science and technology strategy, and to identify and characterize patterns apparent from the presentation of commercialization trends in policy and funding documents. For the second study, we surveyed Canadian stem cell researchers for their perceptions of the impact of commercialization on their research and research environment. Results obtained from both studies will be presented.