Published online 18 December 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1321

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Canada's scientists face an uncertain future

Political turmoil leaves key positions in doubt.

Canadian researchers are wondering what 2009 will bring for science, as an unprecedented shutdown of parliament has left the country's political future in limbo.

Earlier this month, three unlikely political partners united to take down the minority Conservative (centre-right) government of prime minister Stephen Harper. The opposition (centre-left) Liberals, led by Stéphane Dion, banded together with the New Democratic Party and the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois and threatened to topple the government during a vote of confidence over a fiscal statement.

Prime minister Stephen Harper - and his appointees - may or may not be around after next month.Government of Canada

Governor-general Michaëlle Jean averted a crisis by agreeing to suspend parliament until 26 January 2009. But Harper's government is still at risk unless he can convince the majority of parliament to support his stimulus budget. Due to be rolled out on 27 January, the budget is likely to feature priorities for infrastructure, industry and public works such as housing construction.

Green no more

And the Liberals' dream of a carbon tax — once touted as part of a groundbreaking, pro-environment 'green shift' (see 'Green issues dominate election') — may well be dead. Dion gave up on the carbon tax when he signed the coalition accord, which says the group would "pursue a North American cap-and-trade market with absolute emissions targets, using 1990 as the base year." Dion has since resigned from his post, being replaced by interim Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.

All this means that by the end of January, Canadians will have a different sort of government. If the Conservatives stay in power, they may move closer to the centre as they compromise on a variety of issues, including the environment, to avoid triggering a vote of no confidence or another election. "It could be positive for the environment, but then again that is often the first casualty when the economy goes belly up," says John Smol, a limnologist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

If Harper stays in power, so too will a raft of new ministers appointed to the country's key science and technology portfolios. Jim Prentice, previously the industry minister, is now environment minister. Former health minister Tony Clement has been shifted to the industry portfolio. Leona Aglukkaq now heads the health portfolio, having moved up to federal level from representing the northern territory of Nunavut. Within the department of industry, Harper also created a new junior cabinet position, the minister of state for science and technology — now held by Gary Goodyear, who has degrees in biomechanics and psychology, and chiropractics.

New faces, old charges

Many Canadian scientists have complained about the way science has been treated under Harper. In the lead-up to the October 2008 election, they rallied against the Conservative government by issuing two letters of protest. One called for politicians to crack down on greenhouse-gas emissions, the other for an end to the mistreatment and politicization of science. "While science is not the only factor to be considered in political decision-making, ignoring and subverting science and scientific processes is unacceptable," said the 8 October letter, which was signed by 85 scientists and addressed to the five party leaders. Their examples include the closing of the Office of the National Science Advisor (see 'Canada abolishes its national science adviser'), the alleged muzzling of Environment Canada scientists, and the alleged suppression and misrepresentation of research related to Vancouver's supervised centre for users of injection drugs.

Yet some environmental scientists are pleased with the appointment of Prentice as environment minister. He has a reputation for competence and getting things done, he is from energy-rich Alberta, and he has the ear of the prime minister. Researchers say he is more approachable and accessible than his predecessor, John Baird. "It's important to give [Prentice] the chance. Maybe the lesson has been learned," says Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria. Still, Canada was roundly criticized by environmental organizations and representatives from France and South Africa for slowing negotiations at the recent climate-change talks in Poland, and for not meeting its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. The country plans to use 2006 as a base year, instead of 1990, to calculate its emissions targets.

Regardless of who is in power, the academic community faces an uncertain funding future. Many are anticipating flat budgets for the major research-funding agencies, and severe shortages elsewhere. "The Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR] seem to be chronically underfunded," says Mark Wainberg, director of research at the Lady Davis Institute at the Jewish General Hospital and director of the McGill AIDS Centre, both in Montreal. The CIHR budget has risen from Can$702 million in 2005-06 to Can$797.4 million in 2008-09, but it has yet to meet the Can$1-billion mark it was supposed to have hit around 2005. It has also been criticized in some years for low funding rates and for reducing the budgets of funded applications.

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Arctic research could also suffer, says Gordon McBean, a climate-change expert at the University of Western Ontario and chair of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science (CFCAS), the main funding body for university-based climate, atmosphere and related ocean research. The CFCAS budget will dry up around 2011, around the same time as funding will end from the International Polar Year and ArcticNet, a network of Canadian centres of excellence that study climate-change effects. "We'll go from that level of outstanding work being done, to potentially nothing in two years," says McBean. 

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