Climate scientists across Canada are preparing to shutter research projects and lay off staff as time runs out on the federal program that supports their work.

The break comes despite the Trudeau government’s repeated emphasis on the need for science-based decision-making in response to climate change.

For researchers who have welcomed recent statements from Ottawa about the importance of climate research after years of anemic funding from previous governments, the looming gap is a source of disappointment and some surprise.

“All the right words are there, but somehow research groups are going to be dismantled within a few months and nothing is going to appear to prevent this,” said René Laprise, a professor and climate scientist at the University of Quebec at Montreal.

Dr. Laprise is among dozens of academic researchers whose work is funded through the federal program called Climate Change and Atmospheric Research (CCAR), which expires this year. The $35-million program is the main conduit for federal money allocated to atmospheric research in Canadian universities.

CCAR was launched during a period of turmoil after the Harper government cut its predecessor, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. The transition led to irreparable breaks in data collection and drove students and research associates to leave the country or give up on atmospheric research.

“The termination … demonstrated the major negative impacts of not continuing funding for this critical scientific area,” said Gordon McBean, a professor emeritus at the University of Western Ontario and the foundation’s former chair.

Now, climate scientists fear a similar disruption is about to happen.

Of the seven projects CCAR supports, six are to run out of money at the end of the year. A seventh, the Canadian Sea Ice and Snow Evolution Network, received permission to continue for an extra year with no additional money.

When this year’s federal budget did not contain a replacement for CCAR, researchers realized they would be pulling the plug on projects that have taken years to build up.

“We were hoping there was going to be a follow-on program, but none has been announced,” said Jim Drummond, a professor at Dalhousie University and principal investigator for the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), on Ellesmere Island.

PEARL, which conducts observations of the atmosphere in the High Arctic and is Canada’s most northern civilian research facility, became a cause célèbre for science advocates when it was threatened by Harper government cuts in 2012. Dr. Drummond said it faces a potential repeat of that.

“By fall, we’ll be having to dust off the shutdown plan and see what we have to do in order to mothball the facility,” he said.

Dr. Drummond added that he would try to use other funding sources to continue science activities at PEARL in hopes that next year’s budget provides stable funding. But the uncertainty means he and his colleagues cannot commit PEARL to participate in an international science effort called the Year of Polar Prediction in 2018.

For Dr. Laprise, a specialist in regional climate modelling, there is currently no alternative to letting go his team of PhD-level research assistants whose positions are paid for by CCAR.

“It’s already too late by more than six months,” Dr. Laprise said. “I have three employees. One has left and the other two are actively looking.”

Dr. Laprise presented his group’s work at a recent meeting of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society in Toronto and described its potential to inform climate adaptation plans for specific areas of the country. But he also lamented that he would have no opportunity to compete for a new round of funding to continue the effort.

“Somehow, governments over the years never seem to realize how disruptive the break in continuity is for research groups,” he said.

CCAR is administered by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council. A spokesperson for the council said climate researchers can seek grants through other funding programs open to all academic researchers. Climate scientists say those options are ill-suited to supporting the national networks of researchers established under CCAR. And climate science is a poor fit for government programs that require scientists to seek industrial partners as an incentive for commercialization.

The latest federal budget sets aside $73.5-million over five years, starting in 2017-2018, to Environment and Climate Change Canada and Natural Resources Canada to establish a Canadian centre for climate services. The centre’s stated mandate includes improved access to climate science. But Mark Johnson, a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada, said the new centre is not intended to replace CCAR.

Paul Kushner, a climate scientist at the University of Toronto who heads one of the CCAR-funded projects, said the issue was not simply one of channelling money to researchers but of establishing a long-term mechanism that allows better strategic planning and allocation of resources.

“This style of having one funding call every five or six years just makes it impossible to have a stable, sustainable research program in climate,” he said.

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Jun. 27, 2017 9:41PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Jun. 28, 2017 7:19AM EDT