Unique national science facility may close due to federal cuts

A unique national science facility that houses the most advanced scientific instrument of its kind in Canada may be forced to shut down after becoming ineligible for federal funding.

National Ultrahigh-Field NMR Facility for Solids shows struggle to maintain science facilities

If the National Ultrahigh-Field NMR Facility for Solids shuts down, Queen's University chemistry professor Gang Wu says he will have to abandon his research program: 'It's really a disaster or a crisis right now.' (Courtesy Gang Wu)

A unique national science facility that houses the most advanced scientific instrument of its kind in Canada may be forced to shut down after losing its federal funding.

Prior to a temporary reprieve announced this weekend following media coverage of its plight, the Canadian National Ultrahigh-Field NMR Facility for Solids in Ottawa was slated to be closed and decommissioned on Dec. 15.

In an announcement posted on the facility's website, David Bryce, a University of Ottawa chemistry professor who chairs the facility's steering committee, cited a lack of funds for the machine's operation and maintenance. He said the closure would be "a big blow not only to the Canadian research community but will be felt all over the world.”

Now, thanks to a new agreement with the National Research Council, which owns the building that houses the two-storey-tall instrument, it should stay open until at least March 2015, said Sylvain Charbonneau, associate vice-president of research for the University of Ottawa, which helps manage the facility.

The National Ultrahigh-Field NMR Facility for Solids is housed in a building in Ottawa that is owned by the National Research Council. The NRC says it will temporarily waive the leasing fees for the building. (Victor Terskikh/National Ultrahigh-Field NMR Facility for Solids)

But researchers are still short about $200,000 in funds needed to keep the facility running and stop its ultimate closure.

NMR spectrometers apply a strong magnetic field to gather information about the structure of molecules and the interactions of atoms.

The Ottawa facility houses a magnet with a field strength 21.1 Tesla – the most powerful in Canada. It's known affectionately as "the 900" for the frequency (in megahertz) at which hydrogen atoms vibrate in a field that strong.

That makes it the most advanced NMR spectrometer in the country and one of the top in the world, said Gang Wu, a chemistry professor at Queen’s University in Kingston who relies on the instrument for his research and who sits on the steering committee for the instrument.

Since it opened in 2005, the machine has been used by hundreds of researchers across Canada. It has provided data for studies to understand biological processes such as vision, new materials with the potential to store large amounts of carbon dioxide and roughly 120 other projects.

The high magnetic field makes the machine sensitive enough to probe atoms of other elements that can't be studied with any other NMR, including zirconium, barium, indium, gallium, germanium, lanthium and magnesium, said Yining Huang, a chemistry professor at Western University in London, Ont.

"This facility is so unique," he said.

Wu is using the machine to develop a new NMR technique using oxygen as a probe to study the structure of proteins. If the facility shuts down, he said, "basically, I have to abandon my research program. It's really a disaster or a crisis right now."

No grants available

Unfortunately, the facility, which costs about $200,000 a year to run, not including leasing costs, faced the loss of its main source of funding.

The federal government cancelled the Major Resource Support program, which provided close to $100,000 a year in operating funds through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

There were no other federal grants that the facility qualified for, said Michèle Auger, a chemistry professor at the University of Laval, who sits on the steering committee.

The Ottawa facility houses a magnet with a field strength 21.1 Tesla – the most powerful in Canada. It is the most advanced NMR spectrometer in the country and one of the top in the world, says Wu. (Victor Terskikh/National Ultrahigh-Field NMR Facility for Solids)

Initially, the facility faced another problem – its annual leasing costs had jumped from zero to close to $100,000 a year. That's because space for the facility was originally leased for free from the National Research Council in exchange for the use of the instrument by NRC researchers, members of the steering committee said. But after the Conservative government “refocused” the federal agency to serve business in 2012, the researchers who used the instrument were laid off and the NRC withdrew from participation in the facility.

The NRC has now agreed to temporarily waive leasing costs, Bryce announced Saturday.The NRC confirmed in an email Monday that under an agreement with the University of Ottawa, it will help sustain the facility for the next 12 to 18 months. Charbonneau said that is in exchange for collaboration with users of the machine.

He added that he has now contacted the eight universities across Canada who partnered on the project to come up with additional funds.

Built with $11.8M in public funds

Wu said the steering committee previously approached individual universities across Canada to ask for annual membership fees of around $20,000, but found it wasn't practical. He said Monday that the steering committee is also trying to negotiate with federal government granting agencies for operating funds.

The 900 was built with $11.8 million in public funds, supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). The federal government program covers up to 40 per cent of the cost of building new scientific infrastructure, but only covers the operating costs for five years.

Auger said if the 900 closes, "it's $11 million of public funds that's basically being wasted."

In a statement, Industry Canada, which oversees CFI, said the foundation works with institutions to ensure they have a plan in place for the operation and maintenance of the infrastructure over its useful life.

"It is the responsibility of the institution to operate, maintain and sustain the infrastructure they are applying for," it added in an email.

But Charbonneau said planning 10 years ahead is not easy.

The situation points to a broader problem faced by Canadian science facilities built with millions in taxpayer funds  – after they're built, scientists often struggle to find the funds to keep them running.

Between 1999 and 2014, the CFI invested $5 billion in more than 8,000 infrastructure projects. But 35 per cent of projects funded by the program reported in 2013 that their biggest challenge was finding funding to cover operating costs.

"I think if Canada wants to make sure our country is the leading player in science, we should invest in the facility," said Huang. "There's a lot of investment in this very expensive equipment. If it ends up no one wants to look after it … it's really sad."


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