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Workers at SNOLAB install a dark matter detector in the underground facility in the summer of 2023. SNOLAB receives the bulk of its funding from the federal government – most recently in a $102-million allotment over six years, announced in 2022.Patrick Dell/The Globe and Mail

From the ocean floor to the High Arctic, Canada boasts some of the world’s most specialized and valuable science infrastructure. The large-scale installations serve to keep Canadian research globally relevant while providing opportunities and unique hardware for the country’s top scientists.

Now, with a federal budget looming, those who operate big science facilities in Canada are asking Ottawa to come up with a better way to keep those sites funded and operating. Research advocates say that if the government fails to act, it will be hard for Canada to make the most of the billions it has invested in its research resources or to plan for the future.

“We’re looking for more direct government responsibility,” said Art McDonald, a Canadian Nobel laureate whose prize-winning neutrino experiment conducted in an Ontario mine 25 years ago has since morphed into a bustling hub for underground physics projects called SNOLAB.

Like other major research facilities across the country, SNOLAB receives the bulk of its funding from the federal government – most recently in a $102-million allotment over six years, announced in 2022.

Yet, because of its unusual location more than two kilometres below ground, SNOLAB is among the most important facilities of its kind in the world, with a planning window that reaches well beyond a decade into the future and multimillion-dollar international experiments lining up for space there.

Given its scientific significance and the specialized personnel and systems that support it, SNOLAB would be more sensibly handled as a national asset with a budget process and a strategic framework to match, Dr. McDonald said. Such an approach would be more in keeping with how many other countries with comparable investments operate.

As it stands, the lab’s operations and oversight are handled by a coalition of universities who must marshal their case for continued support every few years while also looking for additional funds from provinces or other sources.

In total, 19 facilities or large-scale science initiatives across Canada face a similar situation, from one-off items like the Amundsen research icebreaker to more distributed efforts such as CGEN, a national platform for genomic analysis with hubs in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

In many cases, their impact has been transformative, said Janet Halliwell, a science and technology governance expert based in British Columbia who chairs the board of the Canadian Science Policy Centre.

As an example, Ms. Halliwell cites Ocean Networks Canada, a linked series of remote seafloor observatories that relay measurements via underwater cables.

“It changed the way a lot of people were doing ocean research by creating the ability to get a massive flow of data without having to go to sea,” she said.

Last November, at the centre’s annual meeting in Ottawa, Ms. Halliwell, Dr. McDonald and others held a public discussion about how such installations might be supported across their full operating lifetimes through a new, dedicated federal body. They also recommended that the government conduct a “roadmapping exercise” to make informed decisions about what new kinds of facilities Canada will be need to optimize its research efforts going forward.

At the meeting, participants issued a call for a new framework for supporting big science facilities, echoing a separate letter with the same message from the leadership of all 19 sites to federal ministers of finance, health and industry, science and innovation. Panelists said the April 16 federal budget was the opportune moment for Ottawa to signal a shift away from its patchwork approach to funding the facilities.

“We’re not going to see any money, this is not a year for money. But we need the framework,” Ms. Halliwell said.

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In response to questions from The Globe and Mail, Isabelle Echeverri, a spokesperson for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, said the federal government “is currently examining how it could best support these world-class facilities, which play a crucial role in Canada’s science and research ecosystem.”

Officials within the department have been consulting with stakeholders for at least the past three years in search of a new paradigm for running major research facilities. But the effort has so far failed to gain traction at higher levels of the federal bureaucracy.

In 2022, an advisory panel led by Frédéric Bouchard, a dean at the University of Montreal, reviewed ISED’s progress as part of its look at the federal government’s research support system. The panel’s recommendations, released in March, 2023, include a full lifecycle approach to major facilities and roadmapping, all to be handled as a national portfolio of complementary capabilities.

Baljit Singh, vice-president of research at the University of Saskatchewan and a panel member, said there were different ways to assign responsibility for the portfolio. It could become part of an expanded mandate for the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which currently provides a portion of funding for many Canadian science projects and initiatives, but not typically at the scale or duration required by a major national laboratory. Or it could be one of the tasks for a proposed new body that the Bouchard report dubbed the Canadian Knowledge and Science and Foundation.

Dr. Singh said he favoured the second option because it would provide a natural point of connection for other countries looking to collaborate with Canada on big science projects. A separate report, released in February by the Council of Canadian Academies, found that Canada lacks a comprehensive strategy for evaluating which partnerships it should pursue.

No matter how the question is tackled, a paradigm shift is needed to make sure Canada is on track to participate in and benefit from future advances in science, Dr. Singh said, or years from now “we will be at the same place where we are today.”

Meanwhile, Canadian scientists are also looking to the budget to provide urgent assistance on several fronts, such as a commitment to fund the Polar Continental Shelf Program, which provides logistical support to researchers in the field across the Canadian Arctic.

And many graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are facing especially dire circumstances because the government stipends that they depend on have not been increased in more than two decades.

Deep under Sudbury, Ont., is a science facility searching for the most elusive particles in the universe. The work at SNOLAB has already earned one Nobel prize. Now, scientists are preparing for a new experiment to search for dark matter.

The Globe and Mail

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