Speaking Remarks for Dr. Michael Kramer, Scientific Director, CIHR Institute of Human Development, Child and Youth Health to Science and Technology Awareness Network Meeting (STAN)
November 9, 2006
Thank you all for the opportunity to speak at the annual STAN conference. You've heard some from some really engaging speakers so far, and the rest of the agenda looks equally interesting.
In the next few minutes, I'd like to share some information with you about the organization that I represent, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, CIHR for short. I would also like to discuss science and technology literacy and provide details about a new science literacy program recently launched by CIHR called Synapse: CIHR's youth connection.
Very briefly, CIHR started out as the Medical Research Council or MRC, one of three funding councils established by the Government of Canada to help fund post-secondary research. Six years ago, with new legislation and a new vision, the MRC became CIHR. CIHR has an annual budget of approximately three-quarters of a billion dollars, which is used to support health research in Canada.
Currently, CIHR supports over 10,000 researchers working at 250 different institutions. We're able to do that, I would add, through a great many partnerships with health charities, such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation, international partners, as well as industry partners such as Rx&D, the group representing Canada's name-brand pharmaceutical manufacturers.
We're also able to invest in this kind of research because of the generous support we receive from literally thousands of researchers across Canada and elsewhere who volunteer as peer reviewers for CIHR funding applications.
So, what kind of research do we support? In contrast to our origins as the MRC, the mandate of CIHR covers a broad range of research areas.
This change is deliberate and addresses our new understanding that there are numerous determinants of health beyond purely biomedical factors. With the new CIHR model, we have been able to address imbalances in health research funding and, as a result, start building capacity in important but previously undernourished research fields.
Research supported by CIHR falls into four main themes:
- Biomedical research - this is basic research in fields such as biochemistry, genomics, proteomics, stem cells, and nanotechnology.
- The 2nd theme is clinical research - this includes both translation of basic research into clinical applications, such as the identification of genomic and proteomic tumour markers to target cancer chemotherapy, and clinical trials of new treatments, devices, and diagnostic or screening tests.
- The 3rd theme is health services research - I'm sure you've all heard the recent debate over wait times. Health services research uses data generated by the health care system to build the science base about medically-acceptable wait times and has helped move this debate from anecdote and emotion to rigorous evidence. This is just one example of health services research.
- Population Health - Where you live, how much you earn, how much schooling you have received, what kind of behavioural, environmental, and genetic risk factors you are exposed to are all important determinants of health and need to be taken into account when making policy decisions and finding ways of improving the health of Canadians.
Research support includes investigator-initiated project grants, salary awards, training awards, commercialization assistance, and grants for research deemed of strategic importance.
As examples of strategic research, we currently have a special research program on Mental Health in the Workplace and another on Global Health Research.
For the most part, this strategically-oriented research is initiated and funded through CIHR's 13 Research Institutes.
At CIHR, we strongly believe in the power of focusing different scientific disciplines on the same problem and the wonderful and creative innovations that can result - think of nanomedicine or bioinformatics. There are also ways we can bring this approach to youth outreach efforts, but I'll talk more about that later.
Right now, we help support over 2,000 researchers training in almost 90 different interdisciplinary programs taking place at research centres all over Canada. The unwieldy name that we use for this program is STIHR: the Strategic Training Initiative in Health Research. I'll come back to the STIHR program in a few minutes, so I want you to listen hard for that acronym when it comes.
CIHR is also deeply committed to translating research findings into changes in practice, policy, and behaviour. This means finding ways to facilitate the use of research results by those wanting to make better decisions. If the findings of the research we fund are not applied in the real world, no one will benefit from all the scientific advances and discoveries we make. An idea has far more value if it is shared, developed, and nurtured by many people with different talents than if it remains with a small circle of experts.
Of course, it may be difficult to communicate and effectively translate the results of every piece of research supported by CIHR. That said, there are areas where we can really engage researchers and decision makers who canuse the results of this research, including the general public, policy makers, clinical practitioners, and partners in the private sector.
There's also a strong association between CIHR's knowledge translation mandate and our commitment to youth outreach efforts. I would say that such outreach is an example of one form of knowledge translation.
I've given you all of this background both to introduce you to CIHR, and to provide some context to the rest of my talk, which focuses on the issue of science literacy and the role that CIHR is helping play in this area. Naturally, CIHR also has an interest in ensuring that young people become interested in careers in health research.
As a researcher myself, I have first-hand interest in science and technology literacy. I think that being a scientist and the so-called "habits of mind" that go along with this provide a wonderful and enriching view of the world and offer many opportunities and ideas for how we can make positive and concrete changes.
Based on this perspective, we need to increase the overall levels of science and technology literacy in Canada to make sure that we have the kind of informed, critical-thinking individuals that are necessary if Canada is going to increase its international impact in terms of competitiveness, innovation, and productivity.
The science awareness sector has done terrific work in learning more about the determinants of scientific literacy and about how the public understands science. I've followed with interest projects such as those launched by the American Society for the Advancement of Science, including Project 2061 and the publication of the Benchmarks for Science Literacy.
I've also followed with interest the growth of this movement in Canada, growth that has allowed organizations such as STAN to take root.
Because of the hard work of the science awareness and literacy community, we are beginning to understand how literacy should develop from kindergarten through high school. We have a sense of what kids should know, when they need to know it, and, in a general sense, the kinds of tools that help children reach these milestones.
But, the science awareness community faces the same challenges as the scientific community - translating what it knows into specific practices that will enrich young people's understanding and experience of science.
We need to give young people first-hand experience of what it means not only to be a scientist but, at a more fundamental level, to learn how to combine knowledge of scientific principles with critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
As a result, the scientific community has been getting more involved in efforts to educate young people. Instead of learning by rote, such engagement should help them to learn by doing, learn by example, and learn simply by lighting the spark of imagination.
This is where we think CIHR can play a role through our Synapse program.
Synapse represents a meeting place, a junction that brings together youth with scientists and engineers. Because CIHR is a funding agency with extremely strong ties to the research community, as well as many other partners, we have a natural role to play in helping facilitate additional partnerships.
There are two key components to this program. The first is reaching out to the research community to help them get more active in youth engagement activities and to get them excited about being mentors. The second component is building partnerships, which are fundamental to CIHR's way of doing business.
We realize that there are already many, many players out there in the field of SRT literacy. We do not want to create more infrastructure. That said, we think that organizations will want to partner with CIHR to help their outreach efforts.
Consequently, our strategy is to support the program activities of different SRT organizations across Canada, organizations such as STAN. That's why you see our logo popping up on the conference materials. STAN has also helped promote one major CIHR youth outreach initiative that I'll talk about in a minute.
Let's get into the details of each area.
In terms of mentor engagement, we've launched a number of tools to find researchers interested in mentoring and to help them get the most out of this experience.
One tool we have used is called the Common CV. The Common CV is used by all of the granting councils, as well as a number of health charities. With the Common CV, researchers visit a secure website to enter information about their qualifications, awards, etc. This information is shared with all participating funding groups, making it easier and faster for researchers to apply for more than one grant. We have added a new section to the Common CV where researchers can indicate if they are be interested in participating in mentoring opportunities, their area of expertise, the age group they would like to work with, and the kind of activities they want to participate in, for example, acting as judge at a science fair.
Although this feature has only been available in the past month, more than 600 researchers have expressed their interest in mentorship activities. And another 600 researchers have expressed interest in learning more about the initiative. My message for STAN members is this: If you're looking for scientists to help with mentoring and other engagement activities, CIHR may be able to help you.
Because CIHR is a funding agency, we're also using our funding and peer-review system to help encourage mentorship activities. Several months ago, we introduced a funding opportunity worth approximately $500,000. We have targeted researchers that belong to STIHRs, those interdisciplinary training programs set up across Canada that I mentioned earlier.
Approximately 2,000 persons are being trained in these programs. We're hoping some of them will use the new funding to translate their cutting-edge research training through mentorship activities.
We've given them a number of suggestions about possible activities and stressed that we expect them to work in partnership with science and technology literacy organizations. The deadline for applications closed on October 16, and those applications will soon be reviewed..
The STIHRs are particularly attractive from a mentorship perspective because they will expose young people to new and emerging areas of science while helping convey the message that great science is often not about sticking to just one area or discipline, but in engaging in collaborative research that can span numerous disciplines.
We're also finalizing a promotional campaign to attract mentors. We've talked to some great people who have compelling stories to tell and who, without exception, are eager to see how they can serve as mentors.
One of these people is a researcher named Dr. Caroline Tait from the University of Saskatchewan. Caroline is Métis and is working at ways to reduce the risk that Aboriginal women will give birth to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome.
Caroline's story is very special because she didn't start off in life with the intention of becoming a researcher. According to Caroline, her life was mainly focused on getting by.
She grew up without electricity or running water. In one of those ironic twists of fate, her first job was at SaskPower, where she had to inform people that their power was being turned off. Later, she travelled and, based on her experiences, she decided to go to university. "Life was happening behind my back. I turned around and looked at it in the face," she says.
We contacted 6 researchers from across the country as part of this project, including Caroline, researchers representing the different research themes I mentioned earlier - population health like Caroline, clinical research, health systems research, and biomedical research.
Dr. Frédéric Charron in Montreal is studying something that the younger audience members might associate with video games - Sonic Hedgehog. It's actually one of a group of genes that belong to the Hedgehog family and, fairly recently, has been found to play a role in helping direct the growth of the spinal cord. Frédéric is investigating the gene with the goal of finding a way of repairing damaged spinal cords.
Dr. Charron got his start under the guidance of his godfather. Together, they dismantled the family stereo so that young Frédéric could get a better look at the circuits within and an appreciation for using logic to solve wiring problems. Not long after, as a gift, he received what would become a 10-year subscription to a youth science magazine.
We have also been interviewing an equal number of young people who have shown early promise as researchers. These people have been selected from communities across the country and range in age from 13 to 19 years old. They have some incredible stories to share.
We're trying to tap into the experiences of these potential mentors and mentees, exposing their human side, but also exploring how and why they began developing and relying on their critical thinking skills. Their stories should help inspire young people to think about careers in health research and encourage researchers to come forward as mentors.
One final initiative is the CIHR Synapse Mentorship Award, which will be awarded to a researcher or team of researchers for outstanding mentorship activities. I encourage all STAN members to take a look at this award and think hard about potential nominees.
For many researchers, it's an ongoing challenge to secure long-term funding to support their work. Volunteering as a mentor provides no incentive beyond a simple sense of goodwill and responsibility. This is a broader challenge that we will have to meet. We hope that with formal recognition programs such as the Mentorship Award, as well as the activities I have mentioned today, we can begin to change perceptions and help build an even stronger culture of mentorship.
The second part of the strategy, the focus on partnerships, is critical in ensuring that we succeed in engaging these mentors. In other words, we want to make sure that the young people and researchers both take something away from the experience.
One group we're working with is Let's Talk Science. This group has done pioneering work to develop coaching tools for scientists and engineers interested in working with young people. With CIHR support, Let's Talk Science was able to complete production of a comprehensive training package. For CIHR, the program provides an excellent coaching opportunity for potential mentors and, this fall, we have already been holding training sessions using these materials at universities across the country.
Another partner I would like to mention is Actua, who have been doing excellent work with their youth science camps. CIHR is looking to see how we can work with groups such as this to serve underprivileged groups, such as Aboriginal youth, to help raise awareness and interest in science and technology.
Hopefully, some of these participants will become like Caroline Tait, and pursue a career in research and possibly, like Dr. Tait, themselves become mentors for the next generation of researchers.
We at CIHR are extremely excited about Synapse and the opportunity to play a role in promoting scientific literacy. As a scientist and a representative of CIHR, I'm extremely pleased to look around the room and see that CIHR has so many wonderful partners to work with. Together, we can have a major impact.