GUELPH, Ont. — The scientific director of the University of Guelph’s International Barcode of Life project says government commitment to long-term research funding is declining, and the consequences could be dire.
Paul Hebert said the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, which houses the Barcode of Life Secretariat, has received tens of millions of dollars over the last decade.
However, he said governments are increasingly cutting research funding, restricting commitments to short-term projects aimed at creating market products for industry driven projects.
“In terms of investment in science, I think the last decade has been magnificent and we could dream in Technicolour,” he said. “I now see the situation changing for the worse and I worry.”
The Barcode of Life project has seen its budget cut dramatically and most funding is slated to expire in 2015.
That’s a federal election year when government is often reluctant to make long-term funding commitments.
“I understand the need to cut budgets, but I also think we are going in the wrong way by reducing long-term funding,” said Hebert.
“If we lose blue-sky, what-if science, we will lose some of our best minds. They’ll go where governments will support science.”
Competition already exists from U.S. institutes interested in developing DNA bar code expertise. With future long-term funding uncertain, several staff members have moved.
“I just think we have to be very careful about public policy for science investment right now,” he said.
Gilles Saindon, associate assistant deputy minister for the science and technology branch in Agriculture Canada, insisted in an interview as the last round of cuts were being planned that funding comparisons to two decades ago are invalid.
“It is very difficult because the way we recorded expenses then was on a science line,” he said. “Now it is completely different. We report on outcomes and innovation, food safety outcomes, environmental outcomes.”
As well, the government now uses its spending commitments to “leverage” additional spending from universities, provinces and the private sector.
Guelph Liberal MP Frank Valeriote, a booster of the institute, echoed Hebert’s concerns.
He said the DNA bar code technology was created at the University of Guelph and the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, and their databank library with DNA bar code for hundreds of thousands of species is considered the world leader in the field.
“I think this presents an incredibly innovative, forward thinking opportunity for food safety and traceability and verifying food content,” he said.
“I’m worried that if we don’t recognize how incredibly important this is and how it puts Canada on the map, we could lose it and a lot of this incredible talent will go elsewhere.”