Opinion

Research cuts show government’s lack of vision

Environment Canada’s decision to cancel vital research programs and axe some 700 jobs is wrong thinking.

The reasoning may be budget austerity measures – Treasury Board Chair Tony Clement wants to slash $4 billion from government programs - but beware being penny wise and pound foolish.

Some of the axed programs include ozone research, the aircraft measurements program, and research on solar radiation. Others receiving major cuts include climate adaptation, air toxicity and air quality research.

“(These cuts) really cripple Environment Canada’s ability to monitor our environment,” said Thomas Duck, atmospheric researcher and associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “People around the world are dumbfounded by what Canada is doing.”

The cuts are deep and brutal and the elimination of the ozone research program could be felt globally. A national network of 17 ozone monitoring stations will be shut down along with the World Ozone and Ultraviolet Radiation Data Centre. The monitoring stations take balloon-based measurements of the atmosphere while the data centre is an international database that provides archived ozone material available to scientists internationally.

This core information assesses the ozone layer that protects the planet from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Canada’s ozone monitoring data is so long-running that it is, as one scientist at the University of Maryland put it, “...the glue that holds the satellite record together.”

The loss of data means scientists won’t be able to track ozone loss as air masses moves across countries, monitor changes in recovery and assess the impacts. Cancelling the program may be in violation of the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty ratified by 196 countries and states committed to protecting and monitoring the ozone layer.

Ironically, the cuts are coming at a time when, this past spring, research showed a record ozone hole over the Arctic, possibly as a result of climate change.

Arctic research is absolutely critical to our safety and security and the decision to shelve the aircraft measurements program could put travellers’ safety in jeopardy.

“The guys in this program are some of the foremost guys in aircraft icing issues,” stressed Duck. “It’s important to understand how your aircraft interacts with the environment. It’s still not entirely understood. These guys are world renowned for their work and they fly in the Arctic to do measurements of the atmosphere. Yet they are cancelling the program.”

Duck is involved in the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory and its primary funding source comes from the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences which, he said, has not received any new funding since 2003. Funding comes from the federal government and partner organizations yet the federal budget 2011 provided only $35 million over five years, less than half of what is needed to sustain their level of research.

“For the last decade they have been the primary supporter of atmospheric research at universities in Canada,” he said. “All that research is now without funding and we are seeing a tremendous brain drain from Canada as those people who have been supported by CFCAS leave. It’s decimating research groups across Canada.”

The Harper government has put a lot of emphasis on Arctic sovereignty. But you can’t achieve that without understanding the physics of the region. Slashing environmental research is plain foolhardy.

“In the long run this approach is costly,” said Duck. “You can’t identify problems in time to head them off. When you get a catastrophe, it’s much more costly to fix. Countries that understand (environmental or climate) problems and correct them or adapt to them quickly will be at a competitive economic advantage. Those who don’t will be disadvantaged. It’s wrong thinking to say cuts save money. They will (ultimately) cost a lot.”

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