Prime Minister Stephen Harper ventured into the lion's den Monday, defending his government's record on science funding before some of the country's top researchers at an awards ceremony for researchers in Ottawa.

He emerged without a scratch.

Indeed, he actually basked in praise for Gary Goodyear, his minister of state for science and technology.

Goodyear has been much maligned by some scientists who maintain research was shortchanged in the Jan. 27 federal budget. But there was no criticism Monday at an awards ceremony for the winners of prestigious research prizes handed out by the federally funded Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

"It has been a real pleasure for us to work with the Hon. Gary Goodyear," NSERC president Suzanne Fortier said.

"He has already proven himself a champion of the science and technology community."

Harper, who conferred the awards, touted the importance of science to Canada's future prosperity.

"In the world of today, scientific and technological innovation is fundamental to economic and social progress," Harper told the assembled researchers.

"It creates good jobs, raises living standards and underlies improvements in medicine, communications and family life. No country can hope to remain prosperous and healthy without reinvesting a substantial portion of its wealth in science and technology."

Researchers complain about cuts

Harper said that's why the January budget committed an additional $5 billion to science, much of it to improve lab facilities at colleges and universities.

However, some scientists have said there's little point to improving laboratory infrastructure when the government is simultaneously cutting $148 million over three years from the agencies — including NSERC — that fund the research carried out in those labs.

They have complained that important research projects and funding programs will have to be curtailed or eliminated as a result of the cuts.

Late last month, a meeting between Goodyear and the Canadian Association of University Teachers degenerated into a shouting match. CAUT representatives said Goodyear was combative and unwilling to listen to their concerns and accused them of lying about the budget measures.

Harper was on hand Monday to congratulate the winners of NSERC research prizes.

Paul Corkum, a University of Ottawa physicist, was awarded Canada's top research prize, the $1-million Gerhard Herzberg gold medal for science and engineering.

Corkum is known for developing attosecond laser pulses — flashes of light so short that they can provide stop-action photographs of electrons moving around atoms.