An increase in grant opportunities for pandemic-related projects has Ryerson researchers altering the focus of their work
A $300,000 research grant was enough to convince the dean of Ryerson’s Faculty of Science, David Cramb, to put his research projects on pause and build a synthetic version of the novel coronavirus.
“Our lab didn’t do anything with viruses before COVID,” Cramb said, “but we saw this opportunity come along in May and we took it.”
Cramb and his research team put aside their other work on nanotechnology in biomedicine, and focused on preparing a proposal for the new Ryerson COVID-19 SRC Response Fund in June. The money is now helping them acquire materials to wreathe their new particle with spike proteins – those stick-like appendages seen in popular photos of the coronavirus – which Cramb said are incredibly rare and expensive.
“We’re fortunate to get the grant, because so many researchers have pivoted towards COVID-19 projects,” he said. “At the same time, there is lots more funding available if you’re doing this kind of research right now.”
For Canadian researchers, preparing a proposal that relates to the pandemic is a well-calculated move. The Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) has so far invested $55 million towards its (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding, and a total of 100 grants have been awarded for research in medical, social and policy countermeasures.
For Cramb, already an expert in nanoparticles, working on a virus was an intuitive shift. For other researchers, however, COVID-19 research can be a far reach.
Dan Horner, a historian of Canadian politics in Ryerson’s department of criminology, was researching how marginalized communities in mid 19th century Montreal played a role in the city’s growth when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.
Horner said he feels fortunate to have applied for his funding in late 2019, and foresees that both a continued favouring of COVID-19 research and an ensuing recession could mean difficult times ahead for researchers in his field.
A new study of more than 2,500 academics from the U.K. found that 40 per cent of researchers share Horner’s thought, saying the pandemic has undermined their confidence in applying for grants that are not focused on COVID-19, and would mean less funding and attention for some of the other major challenges that humanity faces. Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of Science told insidehighered.com that he anticipates the continuing pause in research of other major problems, such as climate change, inequality and other diseases, could be costly for the researchers and advancement of those fields.
“That being said,” said Horner, “academics are good at making their projects and interests fit the mood of the times.”
Horner himself is now reflecting on how his work might inform more timely research. His project examines urban growth, social cohesion and public health which, he said, could all lead to important findings.
“In my work I end up looking at reactions to outbreaks and epidemic diseases — they were commonplace in the 19th century,” he said.
Horner also said this pressure for researchers to alter their focus based on social change happens quite often.
“Generally, (funding agencies) want to favour things that are timely and relevant, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “After 9/11, there was a lot of funding for research that touched on security in some way. When Harper became prime minister, he directed funding towards business and prosperity.”
Richard McCulloch, executive director of research services at Ryerson, said the university boasts strengths across disciplines that can continue to generate research useful to the pandemic.
“We have a constellation of urban health and wellness researchers who have pivoted their focus to COVID research, with a strong focus on city building in pandemic times,” McCulloch said.
McCulloch also pointed to the university’s strong focus on Indigenous research for providing advances in serving underprivileged communities.
Prof. Eric Liberda, a toxicology and aboriginal health researcher, has funding to develop tools and techniques to help remote Indigenous communities fabricate their own PPE.
Additionally, Claire Oswald, a professor in the geography and environmental studies department, has funding to create a system that monitors wastewater drainage networks for early COVID-19 detection.
Josephine Wong, a professor at Ryerson and reviewer with CIHR, said that between February and June, the majority of grant money went to research projects directly related to COVID-19. Now, she said, pandemic-specific proposals do not dominate the approved list as much as they used to, but health-related research continues to be prioritized by her reviewing board.
“Things are slowly transitioning back to the regular distribution (of funding),” Wong said. “Still, we want to fund research in health, but also in areas that could impact health, like climate change — many biologists say that might increase the risk of more pandemics.
“The second part,” she said, “is we want to fund research that can be done online and that will not be limited by any pandemics. We don’t know when this pandemic will end and we don’t know when the next one will start.”