A Quebec observatory, home to the world’s first dark sky preserve, is at risk of shutting down because of federal funding cuts.
The Mont Mégantic Observatory — about 250 kilometres east of Montreal, in the Eastern Townships — is the largest astronomy centre of its kind in eastern North America, and a popular destination for researchers and star enthusiasts alike.
But funding cuts at the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) mean the centre is losing half its annual budget this year, leaving the observatory’s future in peril, said director Robert Lamontagne.
NSERC informed the observatory it was cutting its approximate $300,000 annual grant by 40 per cent this year, and is eliminating financial support altogether after that, Lamontagne told CBC News.
"We don't know why we got such a small amount and why it's going to go down to zero in a year from now," he said this week. "We're the last large university-based telescope operating in Canada."
"The only thing we know for sure is we're getting less money this year and no money next year.''
The observatory, which opened three decades ago, is known as a high performance training centre for astronauts and physicists from McGill University, l’Université Laval, and the University of Montreal, he said.
But it may have to shut its doors if it loses the NSERC money, which is used to maintain the centre’s state-of-the-art telescope and pay staff salaries.
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The cuts reflect the federal government’s total lack of understanding of the role and importance of science in society, said former astronaut and Liberal MP Marc Garneau.
"I think it is a supreme conceit on the part of the government to decide what kind of science is worthwhile doing," said Garneau, who is the Liberal critic for Industry, Science and Technology.
Bleeding the observatory of funding will hurt the university astronomy community and the academic world at large, Garneau explained.
"Despite the fact that we're a small country in terms of population, we punch well above our weight in terms of publishing papers and the important discoveries made by Canadian astronomers," he said.
It will also affect the large community of amateur astronomers who take advantage of many of Mont-Mégantic’s public star-gazing programs, often held at the nearby Astrolabe.
"It will deprive us of the whole professional dimension of astronomy, the teaching and research," said Pierre Goulet, director of the Mont-Mégantic provincial park.
The Astrolable won’t necessarily close to the public if the observatory shuts down, Goulet speculated. But the area would no longer be recognized as one of Canada’s leading astronomy centres.
Lamontagne said he’s considering how to appeal NSERC's decision, but he is still waiting for a fuller explanation of why the annual grant is being cut.
Local officials in the Eastern Townships are already mobilizing efforts to protest the funding cuts. "We are currently preparing our strategy," said Colette Roy Laroche, mayor of Mont-Mégantic.
Observatory innovates in controlling light pollution
The centre’s efforts to control local light pollution from Sherbrooke and other nearby towns led researchers to establish the world’s first internationally recognized "dark sky preserve" around its facilities to maximize the visibility of stars.
The preserve covers about 5,500 square kilometres and includes municipal and private measures to limit outdoor lighting. The International Dark Sky Association recognized Mont Mégantic’s efforts in 2007.