Federal Science Cuts Stall Climate, Mercury Research

As cuts to federal science budgets continue, former government scientists and academics who’ve lost their funding say the cuts have upended their careers, compromised knowledge about Canada’s environment and undercut the development of the next generation of scientists.

The cuts were cast into the national spotlight earlier this year when CBC’s Fifth Estate ran an episode called Silence of the Labs.  

As the list of affected departments grows, DeSmog Canada has reached out to former government and university scientists to hear their stories.

Mercury and Climate Unwatched?

Britt Hall, a biogeochemist at the University of Regina, would travel every summer to the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a freshwater research institute, to study the way chemicals move in the environment.

There, she examined mercury, a neurotoxin, found in the environment naturally, but predominantly from burning coal for electricity.

Thomas Duck, a climate scientist at Dalhousie University, spent 18 years travelling to a remote weather station on Ellesmere Island in the Arctic to do climate science at the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory in Eureka, Nunavut.

Both Duck and Hall worked at world-renowned research institutes that faced elimination in 2012 — and then were saved, but their careers have by no means returned to normal.

The ups and downs of the Experimental Lakes Area’s 58 lakes in northwest Ontario have been well recorded in the media. When the federal government chopped the area’s $2-million annual funding in May 2012, world-renowned scientists decried the cuts.

All seemed lost until the Ontario and Manitoba governments stepped in to support the International Institute for Sustainable Development as the new manager.

For seven years, Hall and other scientists had been feeding a lake, a forest and a wetland with mercury at the Experimental Lakes Area. They were studying how long it takes mercury to leave fish when the doors were shut.

Funding for Duck’s polar lab dried up after the Harper government cut off money to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, a fund for climate science created by the Chretien government.

Running on reserves until early 2012, the lab was forced to close for part of the year when it couldn’t secure $1.5 million in annual funding. Then, a year and a bit later, the government stepped in with $1-million-a-year for five years.

Prior to the doors closing, Duck was working on “cutting edge” research into how the atmosphere and permafrost were interacting. The Arctic’s infrastructure — roads, buildings and bridges — is built on the permafrost and if it melts “we have real problems,” Duck says.

A recent survey of Arctic dwellers found residents want research to be focused on issues relevant to their daily lives. 

Just because the Experimental Lakes Area and the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory were saved doesn’t mean Hall and Duck’s return is certain, however.

“I am hoping to get out there [the ELA], so we will see if I can scrape together a small amount of money to go,” says Hall, who says she lost her funding as a result of a fundamental reordering of the way science is funded in Canada.

Duck, meanwhile, says funding was restored — 40 per cent lower than the original amount — but the closure kneecapped his research and gutted his capacity to carry on research into the impact of climate change on the permafrost.

“It took the ability to even propose these kinds of ideas out of our hands — the loss of capacity meant we could no longer make a credible case for it,” he says.

Disappearing Dollars

For environmental scientists, the main source of funding for research has traditionally been the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Hall says.

Changes to the council over the last few years cut back money for discovery grants for blue-sky science and shifted internal money to research with an industry partner. These changes resulted in Hall losing her discovery grant, she said.

She contacted three industries that release mercury, but to no avail.

“I can’t solve a problem for industry,” Hall says. “I can help study the release of the mercury, but I can’t stop their mercury release — I am not an engineer.”

Disappearing support for research that doesn’t directly benefit industry was a story we also heard from former federal forestry scientist Philp Burton. He told DeSmog Canada in Part 1 of our Cuts to Science series that this is the first time in his 30-year career he has run out of ideas on where to look for research dollars.

In addition to the changes at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, “there are no other programs specifically related to forestry as there had been in the past,” Burton said.

Lost Capacity

Duck’s team at Eureka helped build a $1.2-million advanced laser radar called lidar, but it’s currently turned off and “its future remains somewhat in doubt,” Duck says.

When the polar lab closed, Duck went from working with 10 people — undergraduate and graduate students, research associates, and a senior scientist — to having one graduate student. All of the instrument operators, who were highly skilled at operating 25 different complex instruments in the hostile Arctic environment, were laid-off, Duck says.

“It was a loss of exceptional people…it also breaks the chain in training graduate students,” Duck added.

The two-year break halted the cycle of senior graduate students passing their knowledge onto junior graduates, resulting in huge loss of “institutional knowledge and capabilities.”

Hall echoes the sentiment. Losing federal funding halted her research and dropped the number of students working under her from around five to one (who is only there because he gets his salary from someone else), she said.

“That engine of training scientists, training students to be scientists, and producing new knowledge basically stopped,” Hall says. “I have seen it throughout my entire department.”

If more funding for research does not become available, Hall says she would take on more teaching responsibilities, while Duck is contemplating changing his research focus after such a major setback.

“This was a life-changing event,” Duck says.

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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