By Margaret Munro
Federal cuts are a life-and-death issue for Lynne Sigler.
As curator of one of Canada’s largest collections of fungi, Sigler has 11,500 strains of living organisms under her care, from the fungi killing North American bats with white nose syndrome to soil microbes that help rare orchids thrive.
The microfungus collection and herbarium at the University of Alberta has been nurturing fungi for more than 50 years. And since 1990 it has been considered a “unique” national resource worthy of federal money.
No more. Funding for the collection, and dozens of other “major” and “unique” science facilities and resources across Canada, has been hit by federal cuts in what is being described as a “disaster” for Canadian science.
“It’s very dismaying,” Sigler says of a moratorium the federal government has slapped on the program that pays for the technician and supplies that help keep the fungus collection alive. Unless the moratorium is lifted, she says, funding for the collection will run out in less than a year. “When you have living materials, if no one is there to look after them, they’re dead,” Sigler says.
The country’s main science funder, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, last month placed the “moratorium” on its Major Resources Support Program, which awarded $38 million last year to “unique national and international” scientific resources ranging from the microfungus collection to a deepsea submersible vehicle to multimillion-dollar physics machines.
The council is also phasing out its Research Tools and Instruments Grants Program, which last year awarded university researchers $32 million to pay for everything from microscopes to autoclaves.
“The loss of these programs is nothing short of a disaster for science in Canada,” chemist David Bryce at the University of Ottawa says in a letter decrying the cuts. The letter, which has been signed by 47 senior scientists across the country, has been sent to council officials and Industry Minister Christian Paradis.
The two programs are crucial to “the full gamut of the research and innovation enterprise” from theoretical astrophysics through to materials science, the scientists say.
“These are programs so foundational to research in Canada that one would think that eliminating them was inconceivable.”
NSERC officials would not discuss the cuts, but the council’s media office told Postmedia News by email that the major resources and instrument programs were “affected” by recent government cuts that reduced its budget by $15 million this year and $30 million in coming years. The council will honour existing funding commitments, but the media office says funds for “the major portion” of the research tools and instruments program “no longer exist.”
As for the major resources support program, the media office says “savings will be achieved by reducing the scope of the program” that now funds dozens of facilities across Canada.
It says there is now “insufficient funding to hold competitions and meet the needs of the research community.” It goes on to say the major resources support program “will not be accepting applications for the foreseeable future.”
University of Victoria researcher Bradley Anholt, director of Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre in British Columbia, says he was stunned to learn of the moratorium last month.
NSERC now awards $400,000 a year – 35 per cent of the station’s research budget – to the remote Bamfield station on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Thousands of scientists and students from both Canada and abroad use the facility annually to study everything from salmon to sea otters. The Bamfield station still has two years of assured funding, but Anholt is bracing for the worst. He says the moratorium’s impact is already being felt – two jobs he intended to fill this summer will be left empty as he works to ensure the station’s survival.
“There is no fat on the animal anymore,” says Anholt. “We are starting to take pounds of flesh.”
He expects the station will have to “off-load” more of its costs on to scientists and, if the moratorium stays in place, that it may have to increase user fees by 30 per cent. The scientists will then have less money for research and to pay graduate students.
Anholt questioned whether the people making the cuts realize the value of the facilities being put at risk. NSERC’s rules have long stipulated that the major resources support program can only fund facilities and programs of “unique national or international” importance, he says.
“Now all of a sudden they’re not of national importance,” Anholt says of facilities that will lose funding.
Sigler is working with U.S. researchers planning to start an orchard conservation centre in association with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
She says she may eventually have to give the orchid fungi to the Americans to keep the organisms alive and available for use by the research community. “I wouldn’t throw them out by any means,” says Sigler, who is hoping a Canadian solution can be found. “It keeps me awake at nights, I have to tell you.”