Drought Research Initiative

As climate funding dries up, our scientists are heading out

'Long-term it looks quite scary in Canada,' says Australia-bound lecturer, researcher

By Margaret Munro, Canwest News Service February 17, 2009

B.C.-based scientist Katrin Meissner wants to stay in Canada, but the University of New South Wales has made her an offer she can't refuse.

B.C.-based scientist Katrin Meissner wants to stay in Canada, but the University of New South Wales has made her an offer she can't refuse.
Photograph by: Debra Brash, Canwest News Service, Canwest News Service

Katrin Meissner is determined to be on the forefront of understanding the climate change affecting everything from permafrost to bird migrations.

The celebrated young scientist at the University of Victoria had planned to build her career in Canada. But Ms. Meissner is packing up her young family and heading for Australia.

The University of New South Wales made her an offer she couldn't refuse -- a position as a senior lecturer, research opportunities and guaranteed daycare for her one-year-old son, which was the perk that sealed the deal.

"I didn't really want to leave," says Ms. Meissner, who is walking away from a coveted tenure-track position in Victoria. But she says the opportunities in Australia seem much more promising. 'Long-term it looks quite scary in Canada," says Ms. Meissner.

It is a refrain heard across Canada as funding dries up at the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, a prime source of funding for university-based projects under way from the Arctic to B.C. mountaintops.

Projects involving hundreds of scientists have entered their final phase and will be shut down by March 2010. "They're dead as of next spring," says atmospheric physicist Richard Peltier of University of Toronto, noting that there is no new federal money in sight for new projects or to build on existing ones.

"It's a shame to see it go down the tubes," says Richard Lawford, at the University of Manitoba, who manages the four-year-old Drought Research Initiative funded by the foundation. The project is aimed at preparing for the country's next water crisis. The last drought, from 1999 to 2004, cost an estimated $6 billion and 41,000 jobs.

Mr. Lawford says the team is keen to build on the project in a bid to ensure there is enough water for farmers and cities. But with the CFCAS running out of cash, so is the project.

Scientists across the country say there are signs that an exodus of researchers to other countries has begun.

"In my lab, I have three going to Australia," says Andrew Weaver, who leads a climate modelling team at the University of Victoria. Ms. Meissner, along with a PhD student and master students with newly minted Canadian degrees, is heading for a new climate change research centre in Australia.

Young scientists have always tended to move between labs. But with the foundation projects all coming to an end, senior researchers say Canada will have trouble attracting bright young climate scientists and keeping the ones it now has.

Atmospheric scientist James Drummond, who directs a remote polar lab on Ellesmere Island that is fast running out of money, says he has already lost a post-doctoral student to a NASA contractor in the U.S. He fears more will follow given President Barack Obama's plan to spend more than $400 million on climate change research at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mr. Drummond notes that Mr. Obama's approach to science stands in sharp contrast to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's. His stimulus package disappointed many in Canada's research community. It provided no funding increases for key science funding agencies and did not renew funding for others.

The CFCAS, which got nothing in the budget, had been looking for a $25-million-a-year lifeline.

The foundation was set up by the federal government in 2000 and took over funding of climate and atmospheric research at Canadian universities from several federal programs that were phased out. The foundation, which received $60 million in 2000 and another $50 million in 2004, has financed 160 projects and 24 research networks.

"We've built up a number of very powerful research groups which are doing the country proud," says Mr. Peltier, at the University of Toronto. He heads the Polar Climate Stability Network, which received just over $5 million. The scientists have been assessing different components in the climate system -- from the glaciers in western Canada to the frigid waters flowing out of the Arctic.

"It really is a huge concern that the country's investment in climate science is diminishing just at the time when we need it more than ever," says Mr. Peltier, noting how climate change will impact everything from permafrost to extreme weather events.

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