Kluane research base may shut down

After more than 50 years in operation, it looks like the Kluane Lake Research Station may be shutting down. Late last month, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada announced that it had decided not to renew the funding for the station's operation.

After more than 50 years in operation, it looks like the Kluane Lake Research Station may be shutting down.

Late last month, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada announced that it had decided not to renew the funding for the station’s operation.

The news came one day after the International Polar Year conference wrapped up in Montreal.

“They didn’t let us know until the Monday after the celebration of what great science that Canada was doing,” said station manager Sian Williams.

It’s not much consolation, but the Kluane Lake Research Station is not alone.

It’s the latest in a number of research stations and scientific organizations that have been left in the lurch.

NSERC has suspended the major resources support program. It provides operational funding for 37 organizations and research stations across Canada, including the one at Kluane Lake.

But that doesn’t mean that they are all getting their funding cut.

“Those facilities that are in the program now have absolutely nothing to worry about,” said Gary Goodyear, the Minister of State for Science and Technology. “That funding will continue, that’s our commitment.”

The support program has been put on hold while the government tries to figure out how to simplify and consolidate the many funding programs available for scientists, he said.

“The moratorium is only for new applications and it’s only for the year, while we study and get consultations from those very same scientists and others on how we can do a better job of assisting them in what they do best, which is make the discoveries that keep our economy going,” said Goodyear.

But because the Kluane station’s funding expired last month, it won’t receive the $100,000 in operational funding it expected for 2012.

Other high-profile research centres like the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory and the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre have also found themselves left without funding from the MRS program.

“I don’t want any blame on NSERC,” said Charles Krebs, emeritus professor at the University of B.C. “Those people I think are fighting this funding problem, but what can they do? They’ve got to cut something.”

Krebs worries what this means for scientific research in the Yukon.

The Kluane station may be effectively shut down without more money from Ottawa, he said.

“I think the longer-term issue is you’re sending a discouraging message out that says, ‘The Yukon is not a place to put your research efforts, because it’s expensive,’” he said. “It makes it so expensive that your research dollar, which is limited, would be better off spent down in Calgary or Vancouver or Toronto, or somewhere much cheaper and closer to the university.”

Just last year things were looking good for the research station.

It celebrated its 50th anniversary and the federal government paid for a $1.4-million renovation to the facilities.

The station, which was built in 1961 from Second World War era buildings, got a new mess hall, and a much-needed upgrade to its electrical system.

“It’s very strange,” said Williams. “Are we supposed to just mothball the thing that the Canadian taxpayers just put all this money into?

“It’s kind of ridiculous, especially for the amounts it takes to run a field station. It’s not a big government, bloated budget. It’s like $100,000 a year to keep all these people, all these scientists, out in the field doing amazing work.”

For Williams, it’s particularly sad if the station has to close its doors.

Her father was the station manager from 1973 until his retirement last year, when Williams and her husband took over.

“I grew up here,” she said.

But she’s not the only one that has a long history with the research station.

“A lot of people have dedicated a lot of their professional careers to this place,” said Williams.

That includes Krebs, who has conducted research in Kluane for 39 years.

Goodyear insists that the Conservative government is committed to promoting Canadian science, and pointed out that NSERC has seen a 25 per cent increase in funding over the last six years.

“I can tell you that the government has invested more in science and technology than ever in the history of our country and that’s a good news story,” said Goodyear. “But we want to also be even better.”

The big focus he set will be on the commercialization of research, which is something Canada is falling short on. But doing that is harder than it sounds, said Krebs

“If we were infinitely smart, we would be able to say research in the next 15 or 20 years is going to find out this and this and this, but that’s total nonsense,” he said, “Nobody knows what they’re going to find out.

“We call that serendipity. You do something and you find something totally unexpected. I think that’s why we do research.”

For now the research station will be exploring all its options on how it can make up the funding shortfall.

Next week, they have a meeting with MP Ryan Leef to discuss their options.

“We are working with our users to find solutions right now,” said Williams. “We are not in a position to say what we’re going to do yet.

“Everybody is looking at how much they can afford to put into this place and everybody is scraping the bottom of their pockets to figure out how to make this work.”

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