calling the funding cuts in the January budget “huge steps backward for Canadian science.”
“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,” the letter says.
But at the same time, one of the mathematicians who organized the letter said Canadian scientists must accept some of the blame because they have not been able to get their message across that funding basic research is important both for itself and for the economy.
“We don’t blame the government. We only blame ourselves. We don’t think there was anyone talking for front-line researchers,” said Nassif Ghoussoub, a respected and influential mathematician at the University of British Columbia.
Dr. Ghoussoub said he wants an open, constructive dialogue about what needs to be done so that Canada can retain and recruit top talent.
The budget chopped $147.9-million from the three granting agencies that fund research at Canadian universities. The government has defended its spending on science in the budget, which contained $2-billion in infrastructure for renovation projects at universities and $750-million for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, which helps researchers buy expensive equipment.
But a number of senior researchers have publicly lamented the lack of money for the basic, curiosity-driven research that history shows leads to important discoveries. They said the budget cuts exacerbated a funding crunch that has left many scientists scrambling to find money to continue their work. At the same time, the United States is pouring $15-billion into research as part of an effort to stimulate the economy.
Last month, federal Science Minister Gary Goodyear told The Globe and Mail that he had met with researchers and that most were happy with the budget. That comment spurred Dr. Ghoussoub and other mathematicians into action.
The letter makes a number of proposals, and asks for a multiyear plan to increase funding for science through the granting councils. On March 16, when they e-mailed it to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 250 researchers had signed. That number has since climbed to more than 2,000. The Prime Minister has not responded said Dr. Ghoussoub, who also sent the letter to the opposition leaders. The NDP and Liberals were supportive.
It has been signed by some top scientists, such as University of Toronto cosmologist Richard Bond, and by senior scientists who head departments and research programs at universities across the country.
But Steve Scherer, a well-known geneticist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, said he didn’t know about the letter until yesterday. Now that he has read it, he said it’s unlikely he will participate.
“Typically, this is not my style since I prefer to write things myself or communicate my thoughts one on one. Moreover, while I agree with much of the content there are some things that I think are more complicated than they might appear.”
He did not elaborate.
A number of researchers who have moved to Canada from the United States signed the letter, including Walter Craig, who helped organize the petition. He was head of the math department at an Ivy League university when McMaster University in Hamilton recruited him nine years ago.
He said he left Brown University in Rhode Island for a less well-known Canadian institution because of the resources that were available to do ambitious research. Now he says he is worried about the kind of work he will be able to do here.
“The promise is a little drier.”