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The screaming erupted last Wednesday afternoon, just down the street from Parliament Hill, in the offices of a Conservative cabinet minister.

Two officials with Canadian Association of University Teachers sat on one side of a boardroom table and on the other sat Gary Goodyear, Minister of Science and Technology, his policy adviser Wesley Moore and a civil servant ready to take notes.

CAUT, a lobby group that represents 65,000 staff at 121 colleges and universities, had planned to raise concerns over the government's handling of research funding. But within moments, it became clear they wouldn't get very far.

"The minister was very angry," said David Robinson, associate executive director of CAUT. "He was raising his voice and pointing his finger … He said everyone loves their [federal budget]and we said, 'A lot of our members don't love it'… and he said, 'That's because you're lying to them, misleading them.'"

The talks, Mr. Robinson said, went from bad to worse. In 15 years on the job, he "never had a meeting like that."

Mr. Goodyear agrees. "I, too, have never had a meeting like that. It was a unique experience and one I don't care to repeat."

The Harper Conservatives are fiercely proud of their record on science and technology. The 2009 federal budget promised $3.5-billion in new money to finance research-related building projects, competitions and scholarships.

Yet, so many in the scientific community are disappointed, frustrated about - and even fearful of - the government's treatment of research.

James Turk, CAUT executive director, said the meeting with the minister typifies the chill many scientists feel coming from the government, calling the reception "nasty pit-bull" behaviour.

"If they treated us like that - and they have no control over us - you can imagine how they're treating the presidents [of the federal granting councils]" said Mr. Turk. "Their intention is to intimidate their critics."

Criticism has come not only from expected corners such as CAUT, but also from university faculties and researchers across the country, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and the French Canadian Association for the Advancement of Science.

They warn Ottawa's stand on research will make it tough for Canada to recruit or retain top talent; that the Conservatives are investing in bricks over brain power; that they nurture commercial ventures but neglect basic research; and that funding comes with strings attached. To some, this suggests a new era of political interference is afoot in Canadian science.

In a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, French Canadian Association president Pierre Noreau charged that the "stagnation" of research budgets "condemns us to paralysis, pushes universities towards disastrous budget cuts and threatens the future of research for the coming 30 years."

Mr. Goodyear said he has met university presidents, deans of research, and researchers themselves and believes government critics are few. "You're going to see that one person who didn't get what they wanted," he said. But "eight out of 10 folks I talk to get it … they are very positive."

Mr. Goodyear, a chiropractor from Cambridge, Ont., said the government has been steadily investing in science and technology since 2006, with a new emphasis on commercialization and that it has designed an overall strategy to ensure Canada remains a world leader in research.

"We have done everything right," he said.

Reviews to reduce spending

The most common complaint since the Conservatives came to power in 2006 is the lack of support for the three arm's-length agencies that finance basic research: the National Science and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

After years of double-digit budget increases in the early 2000s, government contributions in recent years to NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR have barely kept pace with inflation - and last year they underwent a government-mandated strategic review to reduce their spending.

So while the Barack Obama administration in Washington has added $10-billion (U.S.) to finance basic research in the United States, the three agencies that back basic research in Canada must cut spending by $148-million over the next three years.

CIHR, for example, Canada's main funding body for medical research, has to find about $35-million in savings by 2012, and $28-million of that is by eliminating a program that provided grants to research teams.

But Gordon Keller, a noted stem-cell biologist who moved from New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine in 2007 to head Toronto's McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine, sees it as money CIHR cannot afford to lose.

"These are very important programs because it allows groups of investigators to come together to address a common question," said the Saskatchewan-born Dr. Keller, who has been a recipient of a CIHR team grant, which on average provides $3-million over five years.

Named by New York Magazine as one of the scientists the city could least afford to lose, Dr. Keller said he receives more money from the U.S. National Institutes of Health than he does from Canadian sources and that Ottawa needs to see research funding as a boon to the economy: "If I get more grants I will hire more people."

Josée Bellemare, a spokesperson with the Health minister's office, confirmed the money saved from cutting the team grants will not be re-invested in CIHR's other research funding, but be used instead for supporting Canada's Graduate Scholarships and upgrading research facilities in the Arctic.

Polar research in jeopardy

Since 2002, James Drummond, with both the Universities of Toronto and Dalhousie, has been the chief scientist at PEARL, the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Lab in Eureka, one of the most northerly points on the planet.

When he read the federal budget, he was pleased to see $85-million set aside to upgrade Canadian research facilities in the Arctic, not realizing at the time, some of that money was being shifted from the granting councils.

"This is good," he said, "conditions in the north are extremely harsh and things degrade rapidly."

PEARL, where researchers monitor the ozone and study air quality and climate change, is an expensive shop to run at about $2-million a year. But none of the new infrastructure funds can be used for actually running the facility. And so the paradox, Dr. Drummond says, is that he will be able to improve a lab that he cannot afford to operate.

The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, which had been financing his work, received no new money in budget 2009.

CFACS, like Genome Canada, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, was one of 14 agencies created in 2000 to finance particular areas of peer-reviewed research.

But without new funding, CFACS will shut down by March 2010 and 24 research networks that have studied climate change and related issues will close down with it.

Meanwhile, NSERC's priorities do not involve funding climate-change research, he said, "and there are not many places you can go to for this money."

"As a citizen I have to question whether upgrading facilities is a good idea if there's no one there to run them," said Dr. Drummond. "I don't want to demonize anybody, but you have to question the wisdom."

Fixing leaky roofs

Mr. Goodyear makes no apologies for the billions his government has pledged for research infrastructure. Fixing leaky roofs, buying new equipment and constructing new buildings was the "top ask" from university leaders.

What's more, the "shovel-ready" prospect of construction made it a perfect fit for a budget designed to the boost the economy.

The minister insists granting agencies are important to the government, that they have been supported consistently since 2006, but that "you can't put new money into every area, every year."

As well, given the economy, Mr. Goodyear said Ottawa focused on commercializing Canadian discoveries, sponsoring, for example, a $200-million program for small and medium enterprises through the National Research Council.

The government also set up the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization of Research last year, pledging $163-million to 11 ventures "to pursue major discoveries and bring them to the marketplace over the next five years."

But what the government sees as supporting priorities, others see as politics directing science.

Andrew Weaver, a world leading climatologist at the University of Victoria and Canada Research Chair in climate modelling and analysis, points to new competitions run through the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence. These are to provide $5-million grants over five years for very particular projects, such as "Energy Production in the Oil Sands," Dr. Weaver said, or "New media animation and games."

"Governments have always had a say in research, but this is getting down to micromanagement, this is really specific," said Dr. Weaver.

What is worse, he said, is that academic researchers must have an industrial partner to qualify for the grant, "so the taxpayer is being used to subsidize Canadian corporate research.

"They're cutting the [basic research]funding system and also stipulating what you can do," he said. "This is unbelievable - this is Orwellian."

CAUT notes Ottawa's efforts to influence research are not new. In 2008, the government stipulated any increases to NSERC funding have to be devoted to research in the automotive, manufacturing, forestry and fishing sectors.

NSERC president Suzanne Fortier noted that many governments direct research funds to areas deemed important to the economy, and Canada does this less so than Japan.

"Of our total budget, we have about 70 per cent that is open," she said. "That is a good percentage." But Dr. Weaver argues other G7 countries spend more on basic research, making a 30 per cent restriction too large a chunk of a small funding pie.

The government also wants input to help determine the type of research infrastructure projects the Canada Foundation for Innovation funds. Eliot Phillipson, CFI President and CEO, explained that $600-million of the agency's whopping $750-million increase will back one or more new competitions in which "there's going to be a little more direction" from Ottawa. The government is to help draft the call for proposals to ensure it fits with its priorities.

But Dr. Phillipson stressed the competition will still be peer-reviewed and that "a lot of people mistakenly assume government will pick the projects."

He said the new money gives CFI the ability to produce world-class research infrastructure that he compared to "souped-up race cars." But, researchers, he acknowledged, are the drivers.

Staying in Canada

If labs are like race cars, Charlie Boone drives a Lamborghini. Canada Research Chair in Proteomics, Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics at U of T, Dr. Boone works inside the award-winning tower of the Terrence Donnelly building.

Together with Brenda Andrews, chair of U of T's Banting and Best Department of Medical Research, they run one of the world's few systems-biology labs, tackling how life works at the molecular level.

But with flat funding to CIHR grants and no new money pledged to Genome Canada, the agency that routinely backs large-scale science, the Boone-Andrews labs - which support more than 50 staff - will run out of money in December.

"We have a fairly short time frame in which to come up with a solution," said Dr. Andrews.

"I think it's a fundamental philosophy of the Conservative government that they don't see the value in basic research," said Dr. Boone. "We'd like to stay in Canada," he adds, "but there's only two options: You stick it out and wait till the government changes or you go somewhere else."

CIHR president Alain Beaudet said he is "confident money will come in the future, when there is more economic certainty."

CAUT, however, is less confident. It was the position of researchers fretting for the future the lobby group hoped to represent at last week's meeting with Mr. Goodyear.

They had barely begun to state their case, Mr. Robinson said, when the minister accused them of twisting facts.

When CAUT staff said the Conservatives have a spotty record on science and noted they abolished the office of the national science adviser, Mr. Robinson said, the minister's assistant screamed at them to shut up.

"Then the minister said, 'You've burned all your bridges with us!' and they stormed out.

"In all the meetings I've been in like this, I've never been shouted at and told to shut up," Mr. Robinson said. The civil servant who escorted them to the elevator suggested it would not even be a good idea to return to the minister's office to collect their coats, he said. Instead, she retrieved them.

With files from Anne McIlroy