Federal funding changes send Halifax ocean program into uncharted waters

For years, the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network has received funding under the federal Network of Centres of Excellence program. Now that 30-year-old program is being phased out.

MEOPAR doesn't know what funding will look like after 2022

The Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network helped discover when North Atlantic right whales were crossing into shipping lanes. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA)

An ocean research network based in Halifax is facing an uncertain future following a federal government overhaul of scientific research funding.

For years, the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network, also known as MEOPAR, has received funding under the federal Network of Centres of Excellence program.

Now that 30-year-old program is being phased out in favour of the New Frontiers in Research Fund announced this week by federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan.

Budgets under the old program will "transition" over the next few years into the new streamlined fund, which will be double the size, said Duncan.

'Fundamental shift'

"There certainly is a lot of uncertainty," said Stefan Leslie, executive director of MEOPAR, which received $28 million over five years under the old program.

The network co-ordinates dozens of research projects on everything from ocean plastics in the Arctic to finding endangered right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to earthquakes and safer shipping on the West Coast.
Stefan Leslie is the executive director of MEOPAR. (CBC )

It supports 500 students and research at 29 universities and community colleges across Canada.

Funding under the old program remains in place until 2022, but it's not clear what will happen after that.

In a news release, the federal government said the new fund "represents a fundamental shift in how Canada invests in research and supports collaboration among non-traditional partners."

Worrisome changes

That's left researchers who rely on the old funding program uneasy.

"Obviously I get direct operating funds from MEOPAR so my concern is that my funds are going to be cut," said Richard Davis, technical director of Dalhousie University's ocean glider program.

Richard Davis is technical director of Dalhousie University's ocean glider program. (CBC)

Davis and other researchers say MEOPAR has been critical in building Canada's capacity to investigate and respond to ocean challenges, pointing to the speedy response to the deaths of 12 endangered right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017.

"We would not have been able to respond immediately with monitoring those areas using the gliders MEOPAR co-runs and we use for our research," said Kim Davies, a whale researcher at Dalhousie oceanography.

"It took 20 years of research and monitoring in the Bay of Fundy before they had enough data and information to move those shipping lanes. We were on it and able to respond much more flexibly this time and MEOPAR has been a big part of that."

Not giving up

For now the network says it's business as usual.

"We certainly have no intention of giving up the work we've started. We will be looking for ways to have that work continue," said Leslie. 

"And there is enough that is not yet known about how that program will evolve or how that funding will work to understand what kind of room there may be for organizations."

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Paul Withers

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Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.