POLITICS
02/28/2012 01:46 EST | Updated 04/29/2012 05:12 EDT

PEARL beyond price: Arctic scientists give up on research station funding

Canada's northernmost research station will close after last-ditch efforts by Arctic scientists to secure funding for the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory failed.

"We've been working as hard as we can to keep it open, but we've hit the wall," James Drummond, an atmospheric physicist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, said Tuesday.

The lab, known as PEARL, is located on Ellesmere Island, at 80 degrees north latitude, near Environment Canada's Eureka weather station. It has been an important centre for high-latitude, high-altitude research and has helped shed light on issues from climate change to the Arctic ozone hole.

Drummond and his colleagues have been working without success to replace the annual $1.5 million the station requires since its initial five-year grant ended in 2009. The building is to be mothballed April 30 and its communications gear and sensitive monitoring equipment will be shipped back south.

Environment Minister Peter Kent said the federal government was providing partial funding for PEARL and supported its application to a national funding body.

"The centres of excellence, in the competition for applications, did not favour renewing the PEARL funding," Kent said in a telephone interview from Ottawa.

Drummond said those competitions are increasingly stacked against basic research programs.

"We never managed to fit the very narrow criteria that funding is being allocated on now," he said. "Often, (the parameters are) that industry will benefit."

While academic committees award the grants, the criteria used are influenced by government policy, said Drummond.

"This move toward much more applied, industry-focused granting is a political dimension."

Governments make choices, replied Kent, and PEARL is not part of what he called the department's core services. He said weather and ozone monitoring will continue at the Eureka weather station.

"University-led research is important, but Environment Canada can't fund everything."

Scientists point out Eureka is a weather station and not equipped to replace PEARL.

The Harper government is funding the construction of a new High Arctic Research Station at Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. It is also expanding the ability of the Polar Continental Shelf facility at Resolute, Nunavut, to assist Arctic researchers.

Drummond points out the Cambridge Bay station won't be ready until 2017. As well, it's much further south than PEARL.

"Would you accept measurements made in Tennessee as useful for what's going on in Toronto?" he asked. "Nashville, Tennessee to Toronto is roughly Cambridge Bay to Eureka."

Drummond said PEARL has played an important part in several significant breakthroughs. The fact PEARL operated through the polar winter made it unique and allowed it to prove that's when climate change in the Arctic is most severe.

Researchers from across Canada as well as the U.S. and Germany expressed dismay over the lab's closure.

"The closure of PEARL will eliminate a unique set of High Arctic water vapour measurements that are essential to our global effort to better understand the atmospheric water cycle and its links to climate," wrote Matthias Schneider of Germany's Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

PEARL could be fired up again, said Drummond. But it would take even more time and money to restore its equipment and retrain staff to run it.

Drummond said mothballing PEARL is a good example of Canada's inconsistency in its approach to Arctic science. Feasts such as that which accompanied 2007's International Polar Year are often followed by funding famines.

"Generally, it's very difficult to do something that is high-budget and at a research level that is of benefit to the globe rather than to a small section of the population like a company," he said.

"We have bursts of enthusiasm for things but we're not too good at sustained activity."

Consistency is an issue, acknowledged Kent.

"Funding predictabilty is an ideal, but as the doctor points out, there are cycles and the federal government can't provide for all."