The only agency that regularly finances large-scale science in Canada was shut out of Tuesday's federal budget, putting at risk thousands of jobs and some of the most promising medical research, and forcing the country to pull out of key international projects.
For the first time in nine years, Genome Canada, a non-profit non-governmental funding organization, was not mentioned in the federal budget and saw its annual cash injection from Ottawa - $140-million last year - disappear.
"We got nothing, nothing, and we don't know why," said a stunned Martin Godbout, Genome Canada president and CEO. "We're devastated."
The news spread like a virus through the research community yesterday as the country's top scientists wondered whether the oversight was a mistake. Genome Canada supports 33 major research projects in areas such as genomics, agriculture and cancer stem cells with operating grants of $10-million a year. The projects employ more than 2,000 people. By comparison, medical research grants from the federally funded Canadian Institutes of Health Research run in the $100,000-a-year range.
It also remains unclear how the budget will affect the funding abilities of Ottawa's three government research-granting agencies, including the CIHR.
Government spokespeople said the three agencies had "identified savings to be made" of $87.2-million over the next three years in overlaps of grants and programs. But they said the details were still being worked out.
Gary Toft, communications director for the Minister of Science and Technology, part of Industry Canada, insisted "researchers will not get less money."
While research leaders have applauded the Conservatives' plan to spend billions on construction and fixing old buildings on university campuses, they are mystified that the money to operate these facilities seems to be shrinking - particularly when U.S. President Barack Obama plans to double research funds in the U.S. over the next decade.
"When President Obama comes to Canada, we can show him some nice labs with no one in them," said Dr. Godbout, who compared the situation to supplying planes but no pilots or ground crews.
Mr. Toft acknowledged Genome Canada received no mention in this week's budget, but said that the government had invested in the agency in the past two years.
Last night, Steve Scherer, a world-renowned geneticist with the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children, whose Genome Canada grant helps support 70 employees, said he was "still hoping that someone just forgot to put it in [the budget].
"If this is indeed true, this is a very dark day for big science, not only in Canada but also worldwide, because of the many leadership roles our country's scientists have assumed in groundbreaking projects over the past few years. It's definitely two steps back with no shoes on."
Dr. Scherer noted, for example, that funding for Genome Canada supported a contribution to the Human Genome Project, the recent discovery of the ways DNA can differ between people and contribute to disease and efforts to find the genetic underpinnings of autism.
"This is the only source for large-scale science funding in the country," he said. "If it was just one [research agency] that the government had frozen, or cut, okay ... but with all three, it seems like a message they're sending."
Since its inception in 2000, Genome Canada has matched the money the federal government provides with funds from the private sector and provincial governments. Over the past eight years, that's totalled close to $2-billion, Dr. Godbout said, and the annual federal contribution has ranged from $60-million to $160-million.
Dr. Godbout said he recently met with Industry Canada staff, who attend their board meetings, and made a pitch to receive $370-million over five years, or about $70-million a year. The request seemed to be warmly received, he said, but during Tuesday's budget lockup, he found no reference to Genome Canada whatsoever.
"There are a lot of consequences," Dr. Godbout said. "Scientists will have to tell their teams and technicians and staff that in a year from now we will run out of funds."
Dr. Godbout said he spent the day fielding calls from worried scientists and making calls to research funding partners in the United States and Europe saying that Canada would have to withdraw from a few key international projects - including some that were to be Canadian-led. Among them, he said, is the worldwide effort to sequence the genomes of 50 different types of cancer.
"It's a billion-dollar project and Canada was in for $100-million," he said, with most of the funds being raised elsewhere. "But we will be short $25-million [without federal funding]."
Leading geneticist Tom Hudson, scientific director of the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research, who was to play a lead role in that project, said last night: "Frankly, I am disappointed that the message that investment in research creates jobs in the short and long term did not get through. ..."