Lack of students stalls research

Agriculture Canada employs hundreds of highly skilled professionals, who have PhDs and specialized knowledge of plant science, soil nutrients and livestock husbandry.

But those experts need summer students to carry out the basic tasks of agricultural research — like seeding, tending to bee hives, harvesting crops and collecting data.

This year, students couldn’t work at the Agriculture Canada research sites across the country and scientists noticed their absence.

“For us, the single biggest impact on our field work was the inability to bring students into the research centres, as these are such an important source of labour for us over the summer months,” said Steve Pernal, an apiculturist at the Beaverlodge research centre in Alberta.

“At Beaverlodge, we probably seeded about one-third of the trials we would do in a normal year. In my bee program, we deferred some experimental work to next year and reduced the scope of activities for other projects.”

Like most scientists, Pernal manages multiple research projects at the same time. Some of his projects did proceed in 2020, but others did not, such as a field trial on a new chemical that might be effective against varroa mites, a major pest of honeybees.

“We decided to postpone that work. We didn’t have enough (employees) to pull off that study,” he said, adding COVID-19 could delay certain technologies.

“COVID has been a big bump in the road. Some work has been delayed and it’s going to have downstream effects.”

Agriculture Canada did employ summer students in 2020 but they weren’t allowed to work at the research stations because of the pandemic restrictions.

The students worked remotely, which isn’t easy at a hands-on place like a research centre where employees use shovels, drive tractors and feed livestock.

Managing the remote employees was challenging, because only so much can be done when an employee is 500 kilometres away.

Besides a lack of summer students, public health restrictions slowed research at Ag Canada sites and agricultural universities across the country.

Scientists and organizations that fund the research are still trying to understand the consequences.

“The final chapters haven’t been written,” said Garth Patterson, executive director of the Western Grains Research Foundation.

“We’ve got over 170 projects that we’re currently funding…. Most projects are going to be impacted. We don’t know the extent to it yet.”

It’s unlikely that any WGRF-funded research will be cancelled because the foundation supports multi-year projects, over three to five years.

But research scheduled to begin in 2020 possibly didn’t start this year and will be postponed until 2021.

“We’re working with all the researchers and institutions, to give them the flexibility they need,” Patterson said. “The researchers are doing their best to be innovative and adaptive. There are situations we’re hearing about, where (they) are working out of their homes and garages… doing the best that they can.”

The big question for most scientists and funders is what happens in 2021?

Will summer students and a full complement of staff be on-site at research centres in Western Canada, or will it be a repeat of 2021?

“At this point, we are planning for a summer that will be much more normal for research activities than the previous, but time will tell,” Pernal said.

“My intuition tells me we will attempt to do more, but this will likely not be at full capacity and will not include public engagement events such as field days.”

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