Science Borealis Carnival: National NMR Facility Faces Closure

To celebrate our one year anniversary, Science Borealis is having a blog carnival! While the theme is “The Most Important Science News in My Field in 2014,” I’m interpreting this somewhat loosely. I think the biggest on-going story in Canadian science is the sustained active cuts and passive underfunding of scientific research from the Harper government; however, this is by no means contained to this year, and to some extent, physics and astronomy has not borne the brunt of these cuts the way environmental science has. This is not to say that the state of Canadian physics, astronomy, and space science is uniformly rosy and healthy: lots of programs and institutions have weathered funding cuts and grant programs that have been allowed to lapse, and, notably, the Canadian Space Agency got a failing grade in Evidence for Democracy’s Can Scientists Speak? report. (Environment Canada, which has been one of the most visible sources of frustrated scientists unable to speak about their work, got a C-.)

The 21 T magnet at the National Ultrahigh Field NMR Facility for Solids

Possibly the most unassuming looking world-class physics lab in the nation. Source: http://nmr900.ca/instrument_e.html

But to the best of my knowledge, no physics or astronomy facility that can be described as “the only one of its kind in Canada” has yet had to shut its doors as a result of the war on science. (If you know of one, please let me know!) However, this may change early next year, as the National Ultrahigh-Field NMR Facility for Solids is in peril of closing permanently in March 2015. (The lab announced in late November that barring immediate reprieve it would be closing on December 1, but emergency funding was found, and the lab will remain open until March.) The NUF-NMR facility houses a 21 Tesla magnet, which is used to probe into the atomic structures of biological samples and novel materials. This magnetic is the strongest magnet in Canada, and the strongest magnet in the world dedicated to studying solids. All NMR work requires a strong magnetic to resolve the fine differences in nuclear emission spectra, but the stronger the magnetic the higher the resolution of the emission spectra, and the more elements that can be analyzed in the apparatus. Since this is the strongest magnet in the nation, if this lab closes there will be no facility in Canada that can analyze materials with magnesium, gallium, germanium, zirconium, indium, barium, or lanthium. Note that these are not all rare elements: it’s not just research into rare and exotic materials that would be curtailed by closing this lab.

The facility’s funding woes started in 2012, when scientific infrastructure funding was frozen for a year, and the NRC was overhauled to be a business-oriented lab for hire rather than a public research institute. The facility is housed in an NRC building, and received funding and support from the NRC before the restructuring. However, after the restructuring, the support was not renewed, and the funding the NRC had already committed ran out this year. The lease on the space from the NRC is $100,00 per year, and the directors estimate that another $160,000 is needed to cover operational costs.

While this sounds like a lot of money, this is not that much. The facility cost $11.8M to build, and for the want of $0.26 M, may close because all the grant programs they previously applied to (successfully, presumably) are now shuttered or restructured. Not that my research is comparable, but when I got my notification of resource allocation from Compute Canada last year, they included an estimate of how much my allocation would cost (were I paying it out of pocket, which I’m not, obviously). My modest allocation, for one grad student’s work, cost ~$75,000 per year. Obviously the funding sources are wildly different, but for the price of four modest supercomputer allocations, you could keep a unique Canadian facility open for another year. That is not even close to an outlandish sum of money for the substantial scientific payoff it provides.

This has been a theme of the war on science: while the budget cuts are presented in terms of efficiency and fiscal responsibility, many of the casualties have had modest budgets and outsized scientific impact. The fisheries library in New Brunswick that was shut (along with several others) comes to mind: the government spend several million dollars renovating an updating the library, and then closed it months later to save a few thousand dollars. I chalked that up to an ideological motivation, given the sustained hampering of environmental science work, but now it seems like there’s at least some haphazard slash-and-burning going on too.

I’m surprised that the NMR facility is facing such a funding crunch in part because this facility seems to be exactly the sort of lab that the government is supposedly trying to foster: NMR is used in a lot of applied and industrial science, especially materials science and biological physics. That they qualify for not a single grant program is baffling — surely with all this focus on funding industrial and applied science, there would be expanded funding programs for facilities that do that work? Much of the scientific community has said that this “refocussing on applied and industrial science” rhetoric is empty at best, and the NUF-NMR’s situation is good evidence that that’s not just dark or bitter speculation. None of the work listed on the facility’s research page has obvious political ramifications the way say the ELA’s publication list does. A lot of it sounds very useful, and much of it (particularly the pharmaceutical section) looks like it could easily be economically profitable. That a world-class facility like this is facing imminent closure, shuttering multiple research programs at universities across the country, is a clear indication that all science is under attack in Canada, not just the science with potential political ramifications.

Since the facility’s situation has come to light, the NRC has agreed to waive the lease temporarily (read: until this is safely out of the news), and from the sounds of the lab’s news page, there are negotiations in the works to secure some measure of stability. That’s good, but it’s only a matter of time until the next funding crisis comes around, and that’s likely to be sooner rather than later.

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