CANADA: Climate groups lose funding

Ron Stewart always knew it was best not to count on long-term funding for his network of researchers studying drought. He was more than surprised that after five years it was not simply his own group's future that was in peril but that of the actual granting agency.

The body giving grants to his team and dozens of others investigating climate change has been left without money to fund any more projects.

The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences began 10 years ago, under the previous federal government, to award just over C$100 million (US$98 million) for multi-year projects that range from extreme weather to marine environmental prediction. The foundation has now had to tell its networks of researchers they must wind down their projects.

The autonomous agency focuses on climate, atmospheric and oceanographic sciences and reports to Environment Canada. But it has not received any further funds to award grants.

Kelly Crowe, the foundation's communications officer, says renewed funding for agencies is traditionally announced during the annual budget. In March, her organisation was left out of the federal budget and has only received funding to stay open until 2012 ¬- enough for the secretariat to wrap up its administrative tasks.

While some hold out hope for an announcement of another grant, the overarching pessimism is fuelled by knowledge of the track record of the Conservative government. It has mothballed other initiatives from the previous Liberal government.

The Millennium Scholarship Foundation handed bursaries to low-income students and conducted several important financial aid research studies while the Canadian Council on Learning provided information on educational approaches and outcomes. Funding for both has been cancelled by the Tories.

The government says it is investing in climate research, citing an investment of around $20 million in climate science activities in 2009-10, and says several university-led projects are still receiving funding through the foundation.

It lists a number of projects it is investing in, including new meteorological and navigational warning services in the Arctic and $106 million over five years to support 52 International Polar Year scientific research projects in Canada.

Crowe is not convinced. She says winding down the last decade's work at her foundation, with 158 projects funded, will mean "a lot of climate science will not be happening" and highly qualified people will move elsewhere to continue their research.

Ron Stewart, a board member of the Drought Research Initiative, a network of 30 university and government researchers, has received funding from the foundation. His group has managed to bring together researchers interested in improving the predictive aspects of drought.

"This is the first comprehensive study of drought in Canada," he says.

The group has been an important contributor to several international initiatives and publication, has influenced national and provincial policy and has been keeping its eye on some important global questions, such as whether or not the centre of North America will dry out with global warming.

Stewart, who runs the environment and geography department at the University of Manitoba, has been offered opportunities to work in the US and Australia, two countries that he says have placed a greater priority on the issue of drought. He says none of his colleagues have taken on graduate students since last year, given that PhD projects need more long-term commitments.

He believes many of his colleagues could very well switch from studying the fundamentals of drought to its effects, an issue more popular with government than studying its causes. "It's important to know what's driving it," he says simply.

Jim Drummond, principal investigator at the Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change, has so far lost nearly five members of his group, among 17 researchers and 70 people in total.

The Arctic group, among its many activities, looks at pollution entering the Canadian north. It will see the last of its funds in April 2011. Many of its members are based in universities but their jobs rely on 'soft-money' sources such as his and will have to leave their institutions.

Drummond's station in Eureka, one of the northern-most locations in Canada, has provided important information to environment ministries, satellite companies and even to Canada's space agency. If his funding is renewed after the project is shut down, there will be many irretrievable gaps in the data because these depend on a series of uninterrupted observations.

His next move is probably retirement, earlier than expected, but he feels worse for the early-to-mid-career researchers he says will be hardest hit.

"Canada has not been good at holding to their commitments. They show fits of enthusiasm. We've seen that in the Arctic," he says, adding that this kind of research needs much more long-term funding.

Stewart is more philosophical. His group is publishing several syntheses of drought research and putting out a glossy publication that will be distributed to schools. He will also be touring the country to help educate the public.

While he is disappointed there could not be longer-term funding, he is happy to have gathered what he did: "We have to be thankful we got to study drought for five years in a comprehensive manner. We learned an awful lot."