Environmental Scientists: A Dying Breed?
Edmonton Branch President and internationally- renowned soil chemist Yash Kalra, retired in April 2010. Dr. Kalra was Head of Soil and Plant Analysis, Canadian Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada, Edmonton.
How is climate change affecting our forests? Is acid rain changing the pH level in the forest soil and if so, by how much? Is using salt on our roads in the winter affecting the plant life along our highways? Are growing agents and fertilizers sufficiently absorbed by plants? What, if anything, can we grow in northern soils?
Those are just some of the challenging questions that might have crossed Yash Kalra’s desk during an average day. The important work performed by him and by his colleagues allows Canadians – and their governments at all levels – to make sound decisions about land use and how to keep our forests healthy.
The work of Canadian environmental scientists is recognized worldwide. For example, when global soil-testing procedures needed to be validated for the first time in 40 years, it was Yash Kalra who was asked. He is the first Canadian to have been presented the J.B. Jones Jr. Award for his contributions to soil and plant analysis. This international prestigious award has been presented to only 11 scientists worldwide from 1989 to 2009.
Yash Kalra retired in April 2010 after a distinguished 42-year career. What is the future of public science in the wake of his departure?
The government plans to reduce the size of the public service by attrition. This strategy may reduce the payroll in the short term, but will be very damaging in the long term with the loss of accumulated knowledge and the inability to mentor a new generation. The government may reduce bodies but it cannot replace knowledge. This is not a sound and healthy business practice for anyone in the private or public sectors.
In order for public scientists to continue to provide for Canadians there is a need to continue to attract the best and the brightest. Competitive salaries and the resources for career-long learning are essential to protect the environment and the health and welfare of all.
The government advocates modernization of the public service and the Institute applauds this. However, how can young graduates or experienced professionals be attracted to a work place which is constantly underfunded? Traditionally, potential recruits were attracted to the public service by stable employment and a sound benefits package. As these are gradually chipped away, what will attract and retain new recruits? Without a well-educated and highly-skilled workforce and a modern infrastructure, Canada has little or no chance of remaining competitive in today’s global marketplace.
The federal science function is particularly vulnerable. The return on investment in public science research is not always discernible or substantial in the short term. Public scientists are diminishing in numbers and the resources and infrastructures at their disposal are also dwindling.
In constantly cutting operating budgets they fear the federal government will leave itself without sufficient regulatory tools, expertise, financial and human resources to deal with potential environmental, public health or national security crises.
As if program review of the 1990s wasn’t enough, between 2005 and 2010, the strategic expenditure review exercise required federal departments and agencies to cut their overall programs by 5%. Now, the 2010-11 federal budget imposes an additional freeze of 5% to the operating budgets, at a time when departments must find funds to cover the 1.5% increase and bonuses for senior managers.
The Institute is concerned that this freeze will harm the quality of services to Canadians and the ability of the professionals we represent to fulfill their mandate. Additionally, considering that the federal government is a complex organization, decisions by one department often affect others. If Environment Canada decides to cut certain programs which are integrated with those at Natural Resources, what can Natural Resources do? Carry the ball alone? Probably not. Each department will prioritize which programs will be cut. In an era of globalization and effective service delivery, is such a disjointed approach the best direction for Canada and Canadians?
On the frontline of preserving and protecting Canada’s environment are the thousands of regulatory scientists, researchers, meteorologists, biologists, chemists and patent examiners who work in Canada’s science-based departments, public laboratories and research institutes. These scientists and researchers serve the public interest. Their guiding principle is science for the public good – preserving and protecting Canada’s environment for generations to come.
Canadians depend on these scientists to understand the forces impacting our natural environment. We need scientists working solely in the public interest to understand the science of environmental change. Too often, scientists face pressures from political or commercial interests. That’s why we need to ensure Canadians have a strong, independent and pro-active system of public science promoting and defending their concerns.