The federal funding that supported most university-based weather and climate research for the past decade has almost run out, and there is no sign it will be renewed.
The Ottawa-based Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, launched under prime minister Jean Chrétien's Liberal government in 2000, will have given out $118 million in research grants by the time it runs dry at the end of 2011.
"With no monies to hand out, the foundation will cease to exist," said Gordon McBean, chair of the foundation's board in an interview ahead of the foundation's 10th anniversary celebrations on Wednesday.
W.R. Peltier, director of the Centre for Global Change Science at the University of Toronto, said that will have a "devastating impact" on the quantity and quality of climate research in Canada at a time when the research is badly needed.
'We have to be optimistic but at the same time we have to be realistic.' — Gordon McBean, CFCAS
"Just at a time when we're beginning to see the most important impacts … of the global warming process, Canada will be withdrawing from the intellectual effort."
McBean said climate research funded by CFCAS provides crucial data necessary to maintain public safety in a changing climate for use in activities such as bridge and sewer design. The foundation also funds research to improve weather forecasting.
"People die when you get the tornado forecast wrong," he said.
Questions about CFCAS's future were referred by the office of Environment Minister John Baird to Environment Canada, which did not respond Tuesday.
CFCAS awards grants through a peer-reviewed process. The money comes from the principal and interest on a total of $110 million it received from the federal government in 2000 and 2003.
"The assumption was that in due course, the foundation would be re-funded," McBean said, "but to date we have no new funding." Liberal prime minister Paul Martin agreed to refund the foundation in 2006. That fell through after Martin's minority government lost a confidence vote and Conservative Stephen Harper was elected prime minister later that year.
In 2009, then-environment minister Jim Prentice extended the foundation's 10-year mandate by one year McBean said, but didn't make any funding commitments.
Prentice resigned in November to join the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and was replaced by John Baird.
McBean said he hopes the productive discussions the foundation had with the minister's office under Prentice will continue. But he added that Baird refused to meet with the foundation's board in his previous term as environment minister, from 2007 to 2008.
"We have to be optimistic, but at the same time we have to be realistic."
Peltier said Canada had been on the verge of establishing itself as a leader in climate science. However, the current funding uncertainty means skilled young climate scientists, trained with millions handed out by CFCAS over the past decade, are leaving the country "in droves."
Researchers fear that if CFCAS shuts down, other funding agencies won't be able to fill the void.
Irene Gregory-Eaves, a biologist at McGill University who studies climate change in northern environments, said the budget at Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canada's main science granting agency, hasn't increased with the number of researchers applying for funds.
'Research funding is tighter and tighter all the time.' — Irene Gregory-Eaves
"Research funding is tighter and tighter all the time," she said. "NSERC funds climate change, but they fund everything else too."
She added that the scale of the grants awarded by NSERC is completely different, and the type of project funded by CFCAS may no longer be possible. Gregory-Eaves and a collaborator successfully competed for $200,000 over two years from CFCAS in 2008 to study how glaciers affect northern climate trends. A typical NSERC grant is just $18,000 a year.
Peltier started a collaboration of a dozen researchers called the Polar Climate Stability Network with funding from CFCAS to look into the mechanisms of rapid climate change in the Arctic, including the role of ice, the Arctic Ocean and the atmosphere.
He said the network is shutting down due to the foundation's demise, after effectively losing its funding this past summer.
He himself isn't optimistic that CFCAS will be saved by a last-minute renewal of its funding by a government that he says has shown "antipathy" towards climate science.
"It seems very clear to me that this is very strongly influenced by the political view or lack of vision, if you like, of the current government."