NRC prez puts the blame on health care

Tennis%20August%2016%2C%202009%20057Mugshot400X400.jpg By Tony Patterson

The president of the National Research Council, which is now under renovation on his watch, is not entirely uncommunicative. When Canada’s establishment newsletter came calling, John McDougall made time. The reporter was thus able to lead his article by revealing Mr. McDougall’s “theory about why Canada doesn’t get full value out of the billions it pours into research."

The reporter explains that Mr. McDougall blames it on health care. He says that the country spends nearly half of its research dollars in an area that produces relatively few spinoff benefits because Canada isn’t a global player.
In 33 paragraphs summing up the new goals and style at the NRC the article (Globe and Mail, Aug. 6) devotes just two to the controversies surrounding this transformation, including complaints that Mr. McDougall lacks qualification (no Ph.D.), that he favours technology with western application (he’s from Edmonton) and that he is steering the publicly funded research council toward projects “in areas he put his own money as a private investor.” None of this is explored. It’s passed off with, “Mr. McDougall is unapologetic.”
Perhaps he’ll apologize for leading the reporter astray about health care research. Canada does not spend anywhere close to half its research dollars there. The last reported number (2007) was 22% and that had been teetering downward for years. Spending in 2007 was marginally below spending in five of the prior seven years.
Mr. McDougall told the Globe that “We don’t have a health industry, other than a consuming one. So it’s not really a surprise we don’t get much out of it.” (Mr. McDougall isn’t surprised we don’t get much out of university research, either.)
Of the total health research spend, $6.3 billion in 2007, about a quarter was spent by industry developing bio-genetic-pharma medical treatments and devices. Presumably these companies are spending the money with some expectation of return. Well over a quarter ($1.7 billion) went to higher education, principally teaching hospitals to train doctors.
Presumably it is the remainder of the total spend on health care research that “produces relatively few spinoff benefits,” in Mr. McDougall’s view. But this amounts to only about 10% of public and private spending on research, not the “nearly fifty percent” that the NRC president cites as a primary reason to change the agenda and culture at the venerable council.

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