November is typically the snowiest and windiest month in Churchill, Man., but that doesn’t mean life slows down in the small town on the western shore of Hudson Bay. The sun still shines for about seven hours each day in November, and the polar bear population near the community is at its annual peak. And every day in Churchill and at research stations scattered across Canada’s northern territories, scientists bundle up in GORE-TEX and goose down and trudge across permafrost, snow and ice to study the region. Using many fields of inquiry and deepening their knowledge by exchanging information with aboriginal peoples, scientists analyze the impacts of a changing climate in the Arctic. And they couldn’t do this work without the support network that keeps the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) and other research stations running.
The largest independent research facility in Canada’s North, CNSC is ideally situated where the tundra, northern boreal forest and Hudson Bay marine ecosystems converge. Polar bear, beluga whale and shorebird habitat is within easy reach, which makes it an optimal location for studying the rapidly changing environment. A special challenge grant of $1 million from The W. Garfield Weston Foundation set in motion a partnership between government and private sectors enabling the CNSC to leap into the future with a state-of-the-art facility. Jutting out of the blustery tundra 23 kilometres from Churchill, this blue- and grey-panelled science station may be sheltered from federal funding cuts thanks to its financial independence and diversified operating budget and by support from the Weston Foundation and other private donors, but it still doesn’t hit its annual target of $1.2 million without overcoming challenges. “We’re making it work, but barely,” says CNSC executive director Michael Goodyear. “We’re squeezed very tightly.” The centre receives 10 percent of its funding from provincial government grants; the remaining 90 percent is drawn from research fees charged to universities and fees for public education programs on polar bears and other northern attractions, such as the northern lights. “I think we’ve done this in a way that doesn’t impact the science,” says Goodyear. “We’re not turning away researchers because we’re holding corporate retreats or running education programs.”
Other Arctic science programs have not been able to weather government austerity measures with comparable success. Canada’s $156 million injection into research during the 2007-2008 International Polar Year (IPY) — which Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada John Duncan recently called “the most significant investment the Government of Canada has ever made to northern science” — has been followed by what many members of the northern science community are decrying as an unwarranted shift in vital federal support. “There is a general narrowing of areas of funded research,” says James Drummond, a Canada Research Chair in Remote Sounding of Atmospheres at Dalhousie University, in Halifax. “Unfortunately, Arctic environment research doesn’t happen to be one of those areas.”
Drummond is the principal investigator at Canada’s northernmost permanent research station: the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) near Eureka, Nunavut, more than 2,300 kilometres north of Churchill. In 2011, PEARL’s team of researchers helped detect and analyze the largest ozone hole ever discovered over the Arctic. This past spring, however, due to major cutbacks, PEARL’s team was obliged to officially cease full-time, yearround operations for the first time since its 2005 opening — ironically, just three days after the wrap-up of the IPY 2012 Conference, “From Knowledge to Action,” in Montréal. The fact that other research stations are not located far enough north to continue the lab’s High Arctic ozone measurements is of great concern to PEARL’s scientists.
The outlook for government-funded Arctic science, thankfully, is not entirely bleak. Support for the Université Laval-based ArcticNet, which examines the consequences of climate change throughout the Arctic and co-operates with northern communities and industries to develop adaptation strategies, has been extended for another seven years with $67.3 million in federal funding — the amount that had been requested. “We can focus a lot on a few things the government has decided to trim,” says ArcticNet scientific director and Weston Family Prize-winner Louis Fortier (see profile). “But if you make an overall assessment of what is going on, there is still a lot more money being invested in the Arctic than in the past.”
Policy studies professor Peter Harrison, chair of the IPY 2012 Conference in Montréal last April and director of the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies, in Kingston, Ont., echoes this guarded optimism. He points to the government’s August 2012 announcement of $142.4 million in funding for the construction, equipment and start-up costs of the year-round, multidisciplinary Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, which is expected to open in 2017, and to Ottawa’s commitment to spend $46.2 million over the next six years on the station’s science and technology research program. Although the specifics of the CHARS science program have yet to be defined, the plan is for the research hub to support an ambitious list of projects, in collaboration with aboriginal, academic, government and industry partners.
Indeed, despite the ongoing global economic slump, there has been a proliferation of government grants in Canada for northern research projects that are more closely linked to resource development and the need to assert a strong Canadian presence across the North. “I do think there has been a shift in funding in the North from environment and climate research to national security and resource development,” says Dawn Bazely, a biology professor at York University, in Toronto, who led the Canadian section of an IPY project on gas, Arctic peoples and security. “Everybody I know who is making grant applications is trying to spin it that way.”
As a result, private funding has become an important catalyst for Canadian scientific research. “Our family foundation has traditionally supported conservation and education, and our northern initiative brings both of those objectives into focus,” says Geordie Dalglish, chair of The W. Garfield Weston Foundation’s Northern Committee. “It’s really important to position Canadian scientists to contribute in ways that are timely, pertinent and innovative.” He acknowledges the critical importance of working closely with Canadian scientists to find new funding models which blend public and private financing to help ensure the research continues.
Not only has the Foundation set impressive precedents by making it possible for CNSC to build its new facility and by advancing the influential research of renowned scientists such as Fortier and Serge Payette (see profile on page 50), but also continues to offer scholarships that enable many young scientists to carry out their master’s, Ph.D. and post-doctoral research. “The Foundation’s support allowed me to spend more time in the North,” says Kaitlin Breton-Honeyman, a Ph.D. candidate at Trent University, in Peterborough, Ont., who is using a synthesis of traditional Nunavummiut (residents of Nunavut) knowledge and aerial surveys to study beluga whale habitat in Ivujivik, in Quebec’s Nunavik region. “This has helped me build great relationships with the four communities that I’ve been working with in Nunavik.”
“We started out with 25 applications for scholarships, and we had 100 this year, so word is getting out that there is funding for good research,” says Dalglish. “Our students consistently tell us their awards have opened up networking opportunities to share their research with a diverse group.
“We’re also getting the message of the North to the South,” he adds. “And that’s critically important, because the impact of what’s happening in the Arctic will be felt as far south as Windsor and Victoria. And the more informed we are about the North, the better decisions we will make about our collective future.”