Climate-change research in Canada waning: scientists
Ian Munroe, CTV.ca News
Published Saturday, April 3, 2010 7:11PM EDT
The meeting of Arctic states held in Chelsea, Que. earlier this week was billed as a way to spur international efforts concerning global warming and the Far North.
Instead, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Ottawa for failing to invite more foreign governments and other stakeholders, such as aboriginal groups, that are concerned with Arctic issues.
"We need all hands on deck because there is a huge amount to do, and not much time to do it," Clinton said in a prepared statement. "What happens in the Arctic will have broad consequences for the Earth and its climate. The melting of sea ice, glaciers and permafrost will affect people and ecosystems around the world, and understanding how these changes fit together is a task that demands international co-operation."
Yet when it comes to understanding how the climate of the Arctic will change in coming years, scientists say Canada is falling off the map.
Last week, a climate research centre at the University of Montreal, known by the acronym ESCER, warned that such groups are being forced to close across the country.
A lack of federal funds for climate and atmospheric science has "sounded the death knell for research groups working in this field in Canada," Rene Laprise, ESCER's director, wrote in a statement.
His centre has lost two staff, who found government jobs after learning that their salaries would not be guaranteed past September 2010, Laprise told CTV.ca by email. Five others are expected to leave "any time," he wrote.
Climate scientists across the country say they're in a similar situation -- with dwindling funds and poor prospects to secure more money, they're preparing to shut down major projects while their staff seeks jobs abroad.
Laprise and other scientists in his field are frustrated that the 2010 federal budget, made public last month, set aside no new money for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, the main source of federal funding for climate-related research.
CFCAS was founded in 2000 and has doled out $116 million on 198 research grants at universities from Victoria to Halifax.
Canadian scientists who have contributed to international initiatives such as the World Climate Programme and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change rely on the foundation for a large part of their research money.
And while CFCAS's mandate runs to March 31, 2012, it hasn't received any new cash since 2003, and the money it has received was "fully committed" two years ago.
"There are no more funds to be distributed," Kelly Crowe, a spokesperson for the foundation, told CTV.ca by email. "Our researchers are all looking at wrapping up their projects for good."
A spokesperson for Environment Canada said that last year, the ministry received a funding request from CFCAS for $50 million to be spent over three years. But the request hasn't been approved.
"The government will continue to consider this proposal, in the context of our current fiscal constraints," Tracy Lacroix-Wilson wrote in an email. "We cannot speculate on any future funding at this time."
Meanwhile, climate and atmospheric science researchers have begun to leave the country.
In December, Katrin Meissner quit a tenure-track position at the University of Victoria and moved her family to Sydney, Australia. She now studies climate change at the University of New South Wales, with two other researchers who also recently left Canadian universities.
"The possible closing of the CFCAS was certainly part of it," Meissner said, referring to her decision to leave.
Theodore Shepherd, a veteran physicist at the University of Toronto who studies atmospheric dynamics, said people like Meissner are pulling up stakes because the international landscape for climate-change funding no longer favours Canada.
When CFCAS was created in 2000, Shepherd said Canadian universities began attracting climate scientists from Europe who would otherwise have gone to the U.S.
But economic stimulus programs introduced in the wake of the recession injected cash into climate-change research in the U.S. and in many European countries. That's made them more attractive destinations for scientists in related fields.
The situation is changing "partly because they've got more money, partly because we've got no money," Shepherd said.
He admits he has started to look for opportunities abroad, due to persistent funding problems in Canada.
"Not super actively," he said. "But I'm realizing it's going to be very hard to do what I want to here."
Atmospheric research on the Arctic, an area that experts say will be hit particularly hard by climate change, is also being threatened by federal funding problems.
James Drummond is an Oxford-educated physicist at Dalhousie University, and the principal investigator for the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, located 1,100 kilometres from the North Pole.
He expects the lab will be forced to close unless Ottawa announces additional public money to pay for salaries and operational expenses.
"At the moment, we're operating on the principle that something will turn up," he said by phone from Halifax. "The reality is that the funding stream has been broken."
In recent years it has become harder to get federal money in all areas of atmospheric science, Drummond said. And while many scientists in that field don't expect to run out of funding until later this year or early 2011, he said they need new money now in order to map out their work next year.
"It's not research that can be turned on and off like a tap," Drummond said.
With no additional money, he added, the issue of brain drain has become "very real" in the world of Canadian atmospheric science.
"And once those people leave it will be very hard to get them back, because they'll say ‘well, look what happened last time.'"