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Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz leaves a news conference after answering questions regarding the E. Coli outbreak last October.TODD KOROL/Reuters

Hundreds of scientists and other employees who support research at the federal Agriculture Department have been told that their jobs are being eliminated or could be cut as part of a transformation process mandated by the Harper government.

The layoff warnings follow similar reductions in the scientific staff at the Environment and Fisheries departments and come in the same week as the government said the National Research Council will shift its focus to business-driven research projects and away from basic science.

Not all of the 700 employees of Agriculture and Agrifood Canada who were told this week that their jobs are in jeopardy are scientists. Some are commerce officers. Others are information technology experts or engineers.

But large numbers are directly involved in agricultural research, and their unions say the cuts reflect the government's desire to distance itself from scientific endeavour.

Those affected "are research scientists and physical scientists. They were working on crops and the sustainability of crops," said Gary Corbett, the president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents half of the employees who received notices this week.

"Without science, you really can't produce the evidence to make good sound policy decisions and I am concerned for science in the federal Agriculture and Agrifood Canada which, like Fisheries and Oceans, is a science-based department," Mr. Corbett said. "The government can't really perform well if it doesn't have people inside who know what science is about."

The government has announced its intention to cut 19,200 positions from its work force. That would amount to a reduction of about 7 per cent in the federal civil service.

The PIPSC says 11 per cent of the 16,897 scientists it represents have received layoff notices, which suggests scientists have been disproportionately targeted as the government finds ways to reduce costs.

Patrick Girard, a spokesman for the AAFC, said in an e-mail on Friday that only a small portion of the changes being made within the Agriculture Department involve scientists and the government remains committed to science and innovation.

"By consolidating some research activities and reducing some physical assets, we can concentrate our resources on the priority areas that will deliver real results for farmers, the industry and Canadians," Mr. Girard said. "We will maintain our network of world-class research centres and the skills and specialties needed to support what we and industry have identified as priorities."

But the unions say the government's actions suggest a lack of understanding about the importance of the work done by its scientists.

"By all evidence seen today, they have no appreciation for science that builds the base of knowledge that other people work from," said Bob Kingston, the national president of the Agriculture Union which represents 250 of the federal employees who received notices.

Among the researchers affected are those who were part of a team in Kamloops, B.C., that provided technical assistance as well as trees and shrubs to create shelter belts that prevent erosion. That team is now gone, Mr. Kingston said.

By laying off the scientists in the Agriculture Department, the government is losing the leading edge in research, he said. These are the people who do the science that is the basic building block for technological development, Mr. Kingston said. "Worldwide, they were renowned for that basic body of information they had upon which other things could be built."