Canada's top medical researchers may be left scrambling to find research journals as Health Canada slashes the department's library staff and scientific journals by more than half.

Health Canada plans to cut the science library budget by 50 per cent and reduce staff members from 26 to 10 at the department's libraries over the next three years. All six libraries are located in the Ottawa area.

"The gutting of the science libraries at Health Canada is an over-simplistic decision that was imposed on that particular branch of Health Canada," said Michèle Demers, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service.

The national union of Canadian scientists says federal scientists rely on experienced support staff and timely access to scientific publications.

Health Canada will consult with scientists over the next few weeks to begin reviewing scientific journals and other library resources that can be cut.

Dr. C. Robin Walker, a senior investigator at the Children's Hospital for Eastern Ontario, says administrators often cut research journals at one library, if it can be accessed at another in the city.

"There's been a sort of deliberate rationalization of library services, so that if a university library knows that there's access to a resource through another library that's accessible through its researchers, they may very well cancel subscriptions to save money," he says.

But Walker warns that the money-saving strategy may not work at Health Canada because many of the journals used for basic science research at the department's libraries are not available anywhere else.

"I think Health Canada needs to understand the impacts of this decision and reconsider," said Demers.

The plan is part of a federal spending review to trim $269 million from the Health Canada's budget over the next five years.

To ensure scientists have the same level of access to journals, Health Canada plans to create an electronic library in collaboration with the National Research Council at a cost of $41.8 million over the next five years.

"The world has changed a lot in the last 10 years around information products and scientists have more and more access now to information right at their desktop," says Helene Goulet, assistant deputy minister at Health Canada.

The idea was first proposed four years ago, but there's still no timeline for when scientists will be able to access the journals on the system.

Tamsin Adams-Webber, president of the Canadian Health Libraries Association, says the research process is too time-consuming without the help of skilled support staff.

"The amount of time that the doctor or nurse might spend looking for information online, frankly, for the salary I make versus what a physician might make, it's cheaper to have me do the work," says Adams-Webber.