Top AIDS researcher lured away by Florida

Posted on May 4, 2009 in Governance Debates, Health Debates – National – Top AIDS researcher lured away by Florida: Scientist expects to double his budget; hopes U.S. move will be wake-up call for Ottawa
May 4, 2009.   ANNE MCILROY.

One of Canada’s top AIDS researchers is moving to the United States, taking as many as 25 scientists on his team with him.

The University of Montreal’s Rafick-Pierre Sékaly says he is leaving in part because of federal cuts in science funding and hopes his departure will be a wake-up call.

“I hope it will trigger some kind of movement that will foster a deep soul searching and investment,” he said in an interview.

He expects to more than double his $3.5-million research budget in his new position as scientific director of the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute in Florida, but will also keep a lab going at the University of Montreal.
University of Montreal immunologist Rafick-Pierre Sékaly says he is leaving in part because of federal cuts in science funding.
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University of Montreal immunologist Rafick-Pierre Sékaly says he is leaving in part because of federal cuts in science funding.

The move to the U.S. was motivated in part by his concern for the talented young researchers who are part of his team. They are starting their careers and are anxious about their futures here, Dr. Sékaly says.

The young scientists, he adds, will have far more opportunity in the U.S., where President Barack Obama included $10-billion for medical research in his economic stimulus package.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, on the other hand, cut funding for basic research in its stimulus budget, trimming $148-million from the three agencies that fund university-based research.

Those cuts exacerbated a funding crunch that had left many scientists scrambling to find money to keep their research programs running. Young scientists are hit particularly hard, says Dr. Sékaly.

“Right now, the funding is not there. They are going to fund you, but they are going to fund you at levels that will not allow you to be highly competitive. If you are not highly competitive, you are done,” he says.

As well, many universities have instituted hiring freezes, which makes it difficult for young scientists to get jobs. Canada risks losing almost a complete generation of fresh talent to the United States, where Mr. Obama’s commitment to science is a dream come true for researchers, Dr. Sékaly says.

“This is something we would like to have our government here follow with the same vision.”

The federal government has defended its approach to science funding. Science Minister Gary Goodyear says the cuts were one part of a budget that included $2-billion for infrastructure projects at Canadian universities and $750-million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which helps researchers buy expensive equipment.

But many in the Canadian research community have been critical, and say they fear it will be hard for Canada to retain and recruit top talent unless the government invests more in the basic curiosity-driven research they say leads to important discoveries.

Dr. Sékaly is the kind of star many feared would leave. An expert in the human immune system, he has published more than 200 papers in scientific journals. He is working on a therapeutic vaccine to boost the immune systems of people infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

Much of his research budget already comes from U.S. sources, including the National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But he expects that once he moves he will be able to attract even more support, up to $10-million a year.

His new job is to set up a Florida-based expansion of Oregon Health and Science University’s Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute.

Florida has invited a number of internationally recognized institutions to build and run satellite operations in the state, offering rich incentives. Dr. Sékaly will get $100-million to get it going and hire staff, and plans to expand his own research into cancer and cancer vaccines.

He moved to Canada from Lebanon in 1986, and says this country has given him a lot.

“I would never be where I am today without Canadian support.”

But he says this is the kind of offer that might come along once in lifetime.

“It is really fulfilling a vision of what I want to do.”

Around 20 members of his team cannot relocate to Florida, so he will keep a lab in Montreal.

He plans to spend one third of his time there, and says the Montreal-based scientists on his team will benefit from the increased level of funding he expects to get in the United States.

Jay Nelson, the director of the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute in Portland, Oregon, said in a statement that it was a coup to get Dr. Sékaly.

“He is considered one of the leading human immunologists in the world,” he said.

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