When is a cut not a cut? According to the Conservative Government, when it’s a “spending moratorium.”
As Robert Service once rhymed, “There are strange things done ‘neath the midnight sun.” This is a tale of an important research station, a government that neither respects science nor the kind of policy-making it supports, and what happens when cuts hit a place chock full of Conservatives.
Recently, news leaked out that cuts to the budget of the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) had thrown the future of the Yukon’s Kluane Research Station into doubt. Run by the Calgary based Arctic Institute of North America, the station opened in 1961 and has produced a vast number of scientific papers in fields as diverse as zoology, climatology and glaciology.
Located on the shore of Kluane Lake, the facility is an odd assortment of buildings gathered around a gravel airstrip north of Haines Junction just off the Alaska Highway. Kluane has been home to three generations of researchers, many of whom return with graduate students who in turn bring back their students to continue the academic tradition. Much of the work carried out at Kluane is the kind of academic endeavor underpins calls for stronger environmental regulations. With the Harper government’s cuts to environmental assessment and regulatory regimes, this kind of basic research is expendable.
NSERC will be reduced by $15 million this year and $30 million next year, part of a wholesale reduction of research funding across the country. This translated into a $100,000 cut to Kluane. Since the place runs on a shoestring many researchers questioned whether it could survive without NSERC’s annual contribution. Some scientists, already hard pressed to find adequate research funding to support their work and grad students, said they might have to leave the North entirely. Most said they could not absorb the 200% fee increase the cuts might make necessary.
The news prompted Donald Reid of the Yukon Conservation Society to write an open letter to Conservative MP Ryan Leef where he pointed out that the Harper Government likes to make “splashy” announcements about infrastructure construction then starves these facilities of operating funds. “This irrational approach to federal programming clearly speaks of incompetence and poor planning,” Reid wrote in the Yukon News.
This week, Environment Ministers Peter Kent “clarified” that Kluane wasn’t being cut, it was just being subjected to a “spending moratorium.” And by the way, here’s 80,000 in “bridge funding.”
The Yukon MP, who appears to have been caught flatfooted by the announcement, went on Whitehorse CBC with the good news. “This bridge funding will allow them to continue operating for the year which is great news and then the minister will be going through a process of consulting with all of them from coast to coast to coast to find out where the money should be spent and they'll get an opportunity to contribute to that as well so that's great.”
Just what the Environment Minister will be consulting on, and with whom, is not clear. This government is not exactly known for its desire to discuss its decisions with anyone other than a circle of insiders. But next time the Harper Government perhaps will give a heads up to its own MP, the territory’s Conservative Senator and the Conservative Yukon Territorial Government.
Leef beat the Liberal incumbent by only 132 votes in 2011 and the Yukon was one of 13 ridings where an Ekos Research study said the outcome could have been affected by the campaign of robocalls during the last election. It’s not exactly a secure seat.
All the fog around this cut/spending moratorium/bridge funding took me back to the times I spent at Kluane as a young journalist on the science beat for the Whitehorse Star. It was also a convenient stopping place on road trips to Alaska. Every time we were there, we were hosted by Andy and Carol Williams, who have run the station for more than 35 years, along with their daughter and son-in-law (it’s a family operation).
The station is about three hours from Whitehorse and to my wife and I it seemed a logical stopping place one summer on our first drive to Alaska with our 18-month-old daughter in the back seat. Why overdo it on the fist day?
That night, as usual, Andy and I sat sipping good whiskey bathed in the late evening sun as it slipped behind the St. Elias Mountains, the highest range in North America. I don’t remember what we discussed that night, but it was probably politics.
What struck me at the time, and what I thought of when I heard about the NSERC cuts, was how remarkable the Kluane Lake Station is. Like the Yukon, it attracts talent from far and wide. Research carried out through Kluane has had a major influence in many areas, not the least of which has been in helping us understand the effects of using the atmosphere as a dump for carbon dioxide.
Not so long ago, the Government of Canada thought this kind of work was important. That’s why it marked Kluane’s 50th anniversary by contributing $2.5 million towards its renovation last year from the Arctic Research Infrastructure Fund.
Around the same time a re-elected Stephen Harper said there would be no “big surprises” under a majority Conservative government. Unfortunately, he spoke the truth. Anyone familiar with his government’s previous record should not be surprised at the current assault on knowledge. After all, why would the Conservatives need research to provide advice that might contradict their ongoing lack of policy on climate change and their blind commitment to “responsible resource development”?
While Kluane has “bridge funding” for the year one needs to wonder where the other end of the bridge lies.