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                    Funding High Arctic Research Is Important,

                   But $1.6 million Is An Insultingly Paltry Sum


By Terri Chu

The federal government recently announced, to great fanfare, that it provided $1.6 million to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL). It is enough to keep high Arctic research running through 2019.

It seems like such a paltry amount considering we spent half a billion dollars to throw ourselves a Canada 150 party. Really? $1.6 million is worthy of pats on the back? Let alone the endless self-congratulatory tweets from Liberal Members of Parliament.  For a government that just appointed an engineer and astronaut as Governor General, this feels like a slap in the face for science. 

If we want scientific research excellence, researchers need to know they can conduct long-term research, free from political interference, and not have to go groveling for money in another year and a half.

This is not being an ally to science; it’s throwing science a bone in hopes of getting re-elected in 2019.  True friends of science would have put in place a long term funding plan so these scientists know they can conduct 10-year experiments and spend more time doing research than writing funding proposals.  Researchers spend far too much time asking for money and not enough time trawling through data that will benefit all of us in the long run.

I appreciate the need for accountability, but forcing inefficiencies isn’t the best way to deal with the problem. Taxpayers demand value for money, but we need to have a longer-term view, not just of election cycles.  If we want high impact research, we have to accept that duds will come with it. It’s part of risk taking. We praise CEOs for taking gambles that sometimes payoff tenfold, yet we aren’t willing to take the same risks by our research institutions. 

What surprised me when talking to a relative was how little public appreciation there is for government funded research. The “this doesn’t affect me” attitude is more pervasive than I thought. 

Publicly funded research helps inform everything from tap water standards to air quality targets. High Arctic research might be the only thing saving lives in the Arctic region as climate change takes its toll. Good research absolutely affects us even if we don’t see it from our comfy kitchen tables in the city. 

Scientists for their part must make their work more accessible to the average layman. Sounding impressive in jargon-speak has taken precedence over the ability to write papers in plain English. As a result, there’s a bigger and bigger gulf between academics and those who should be consuming the fruits of their labour. It also doesn’t help that papers are often difficult and expensive to access.  Research that is publicly funded should also be freely available to everyone. 

When people can’t see the point of the work being done, no wonder there’s more money going towards throwing ourselves a giant birthday party than funding invaluable research. 

Thank goodness the Stephen Harper era gag orders on federal researchers have been lifted, but we still have a long way to go.  We know climate change is real. We know we’re in a lot of trouble. Now we need to understand how to mitigate as much harm to ourselves as we can. This is particularly true for those who live in Northern regions of the country.

$1.6 million is an insultingly paltry sum. Let’s not give our government kudos for cutting back on a few steak dinners to fund scientific research that might save our skins.  Instead, we need to demand that scientists get steady and stable funding for the work that we all ultimately benefit from. 

Science isn’t political. Our government needs to make sure its funding isn’t either.


Terri Chu is an expert in energy systems, with a Masters in Engineering specializing in urban energy systems. Terri founded the grassroots organization "Why Should I Care", a not for profit dedicated to engaging people on issues of public policy.


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