Ottawa squanders Canada’s research advantage in environmental studies

Promised funding has never materialized.

On March 31, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences will close its doors for good. The foundation has supported university-based research into Arctic climate and ozone depletion, air quality, severe weather and our oceans for more than a decade. Established by the Chrétien Liberals, support for the foundation was discontinued when the Harper Conservatives formed government in 2006. The foundation ceased funding research in 2011 and in the past few weeks all of its employees have been given termination notices.

As seen in The Toronto Star.
As seen in The Toronto Star.

In its 2011 budget, the Harper government promised a new program to replace the foundation. It committed itself to delivering $35 million to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada over five years “to support excellence in climate and atmospheric research at Canadian post-secondary institutions.” The funds were to be delivered under the “Economic Action Plan” with the explicit goal of “strengthening Canada’s research advantage.” The budget expressed the need to attract “world-leading talent” and describes “investing in Arctic science” as “an important step in delivering on Canada’s Northern Strategy.”

Each of the above objectives were laudable at the time. But here’s the catch: The $35 million committed in the 2011 budget was never received by NSERC. There are suggestions of a holdup at the Treasury Board, but nobody outside of government knows for sure what has happened. Questions about the missing $35 million in the House of Commons have been left unanswered by government MPs, who are making a mockery of the principles of transparency and accountability.

The ensuing funding gap has caused many university-based climate and atmospheric science activities to collapse. With scientists already reeling from draconian cuts to Environment Canada, widespread layoff notices have resulted in a brain drain the like of which has not been seen for a generation. Rather than “attracting world-leading talent,” Canada is quickly divesting itself of its best and brightest.

The foundation supported many important programs, including the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Lab (PEARL) in the High Arctic at Eureka, Nunavut. PEARL is the most northerly civilian research lab in the world, and is at ground zero for studies of Arctic ozone depletion and climate change. About $8 million in taxpayer dollars have been spent since 2006 to upgrade PEARL’s capabilities. However, with the demise of the foundation’s funding, PEARL scientists are currently at Eureka wrapping up their activities before packing up what can be shipped out and mothballing the rest. Rather than “invest in Arctic science,” this government is squandering its past investments.

The Canadian Middle Atmosphere Model (CMAM) program represents another important and long-standing foundation activity that is being discontinued. CMAM uses computer simulations to study the effects of climate change on ozone depletion. International research in this area has intensified following the 2011 discovery of an Arctic ozone hole.

We need to know what the future has in store for the ozone layer in order to protect the health and safety of Canadians. University-based research in this area using CMAM has shut down and its leader is leaving the country.

The loss of research capacity in Canada in both government and our universities impacts the lives of all Canadians both now and in the future. Ongoing environmental challenges will require policies informed by advice from scientists that we may no longer have access to. Once the science capacity is gone we will lose the ability to properly plan for the future. It will take more than a generation to rebuild.

The government should come clean about what happened to the $35 million it promised to “strengthen Canada’s research advantage” in environmental science. Even if the funds arrive at NSERC tomorrow it will be many months before they reach the scientific community — long after the damage has been done. And furthermore, the funding gap has resulted in the loss of many talented researchers.

If the government believes that studying climate change, ozone depletion and the environment in general are no longer in Canada’s national interests then it should say so. Canadians deserve no less than the truth and expect that budgetary promises made are kept.

Thomas J. Duck is an associate professor of physics and atmospheric science at Dalhousie University and co-founder of the Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change, which operates PEARL.