Scientists urge PM to restore research funds

More than 2,000 Canadian researchers have added their signatures to a letter asking the federal government to reconsider funding cuts included in the January budget. The researchers say the cuts are "a huge step backward for Canadian science."

More than 2,000 Canadian researchers have added their signatures to a letter asking the federal government to reconsider funding cuts included in the January budget, calling them "a huge step backward for Canadian science."

The letter, titled "Don't Leave Canada Behind," calls on the government to develop a plan to encourage science, restore funding to the country's main three granting councils and drop conditions placed on promised infrastructure spending.

"When U.S. researchers are being actively approached for ideas to use the stimulus money to think big and to hire and retain their researchers, their Canadian counterparts are now scrambling to identify budget cuts for their labs, while worrying about the future of their graduating students," said the letter, written on March 16 and addressed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

Harper has yet to respond to the letter, while opposition leaders Ignatieff and the NDP's Jack Layton issued statements of support for the scientists.

But Minister of Industry Tony Clement, speaking in Toronto after he unveiled a $145-million program meant to stimulate research and development in the automotive sector, said the criticism was unfounded.

"When you look at our investments in science and technology, they are unprecedented," he told reporters.

The January budget included a promise of $2 billion in infrastructure spending, an additional $750 million for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and $87.5 million over three years for doctoral scholarships.

But the researchers said they are concerned that some of the money promised for infrastructure and the CFI required matching funds from private sources that they say universities are having a difficult time finding.

They also expressed disappointment in cuts to the three main granting councils and the lack of any new funds for Genome Canada, an arm's-length non-profit organization that was expecting about $100 million in funds.

Genome Canada announced earlier this month that it was pulling its support for an international stem-cell consortium because of the lack of funds.

Concern that 'brain drain' is coming

Ottawa Health Research Institute researcher Michael Rudnicki, the consortium's head, told the journal Nature on Wednesday that the cut in funds was a result of "the Conservative government failing to support science."

Clement, however, said the government is under no obligation to fund programs in perpetuity.

"There are always programs that will find that they are at the end of their life," said Clement.

"I will not stand here as an elected representative and say every single program in science will be funded forever. That's absurd, in fact that's the antithesis of the scientific method."

The petition signatories are one of several groups to express dismay over the government's lack of support for basic research in Canada.

On Wednesday, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents 57,000 professionals and scientists in the public sector, issued a statement lamenting $35 million in cuts to the National Research Council.

The institute's president, Gary Corbett, said in a statement that cuts to public science funding will make it more difficult for Canada to compete globally.

"There is a very real danger that these researchers, scientists and engineers will look to the United States to continue their careers, now that the Obama administration is making such a serious and wide-ranging commitment to science" said Corbett.

That concern echoes a February editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that said cuts to science funding risked starting a brain drain.

Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, responded to some of the criticism in a letter to the journal Nature published on Wednesday, saying the government was "committed to innovation and discovery.

"Your readers should therefore rest assured that the government of Canada will continue to fund research for the benefit of all scientists and Canadians," he wrote.