“There’s a component of science that has to remain to protect the public trust.”
– GARY CORBETT, PIPS
Canada’s federal agriculture scientists are getting old, their equipment is outdated and their research increasingly aimed at making money for big business rather than benefiting the public good.
That’s how Gary Corbett interprets Auditor General Sheila Fraser’s recent assessment of Agr i cul ture and Agri-Food Canada’s research branch.
Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, says Fraser’s report reflects what he’s been saying for years: AAFC must improve the way it handles its scientific research program.
The report released last week found serious fault with the way the branch manages its human resources, funding and capital assets.
It particularly criticized the lack of long-term human resource planning.
“There had been no assessment of the numerous vacant positions within the branch, to determine which ones need to be considered for staffing in the future and which ones need to be eliminated,” the report said.
In its response, the government promised an updated human resource plan for the research branch this month.
But Corbett said he was worried about Canada’s rapidly aging cadre of agricultural research scientists and the lack of new blood in the branch.
According to the auditor general’s report, 40 per cent of employees in the research branch were 50 or older as of September 2007, with a high rate of employees eligible to retire by March 2010.
“I don’t see a lot of younger faces when I go and meet my membership,” said Corbett.
He also expressed concern about Fraser’s assessment of AAFC’s research facilities. According to the auditor general, 26 per cent of the buildings (based on square metres) were in poor condition while 45 per cent were just average. Also, 71 per cent of laboratory and agricultural equipment “had exceeded its service life.”
“How do you attract a new and innovative workforce if you don’t have the equipment to do it?” asked Corbett.
He expressed particular concern about promot ing profit-driven research in collaboration with industry over science that benefits the public in general.
The trend began under former Liberal governments in the 1990s and continues under the present Conservat ive regime, he said.
“I think there’s a component of science that has to remain to protect the public trust,” said Corbett.
“When industries get involved and are in control of that particular sector alone, it becomes about more than public trust. It becomes about making bucks.”
According to PIPS, AAFC accounts for 40 per cent of the agricultural research conducted in Canada. Universities and the private sector account for the rest.
But years of cuts have had a negative impact on AAFC research, says the organization representing 57,000 public service scientists and other professionals.
Starting with cutbacks in the 1995 federal budget, AAFC’s staff decreased. Research locations were consolidated into 19 centres and 37 sub-sites.
A lack of predictable funding had a negative impact on research efforts, Fraser found in her report. She cited peer-reviewed project funding cuts of six per cent in 2007-08 and a further 20 per cent in 2008-09.
Liberal Agriculture Critic Wayne Easter accused federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz of “incompetence and a complete lack of leadership” in light of Fraser’s report.
“This minister claims to be on the side of Canadian farmers but he is running his department into the ground,” Easter said in a statement. [email protected]