Cabinet cut research funding for the Canadian Space Agency by 85 percent even as it appointed a Space Advisory Board to promote science, newly-released accounts show. A former Agency president earlier described its state as “depressing”.
Budget data show Agency funding for research to support new discoveries fell from $54.7 million a year to just $8 million in the period from 2009 to 2015. Cuts included the 2009 elimination of a $33.9 million Space Technology Research Program.
“It’s not just research, it’s everything,” said Marc Boucher, director of the Canadian Space Commerce Association. “Some programs were cut altogether, including education. Public outreach was gutted and basically doesn’t exist anymore.”
Cabinet in 2014 appointed a Space Advisory Board under General (Ret’d) Walter Natynczyk to promote research. Canada was the third country in space after Soviet Russia and the U.S., with the 1962 launch of the Alouette I satellite.
“The general consensus is the Space Agency isn’t playing the game,” said Mark Fricker, president of the Canadian Space Society. “The rest of the community isn’t playing that game, either. If there’s funding for start-up ideas then you will find small funding from others, but as soon as the Space Agency backs out the company interests go with them.”
“It’s not a direct reaction, it’s a secondary reaction,” Fricker said. “That’s what hurts. We can’t leverage other assets because the major player has left.”
The Agency in 2014 hired consultants to “capture the economic argument for investment in space”, in an initiative former astronaut Marc Garneau called incredible: “I’m flabbergasted the Agency feels the need to have some contractor tell them what value they give to Canadians,” Garneau said in an earlier interview.
“When I was president of the Canadian Space Agency I didn’t need anyone to tell me how the work benefited the country; we knew it,” said Garneau, now Liberal transport minister, who left the Agency to run for Parliament in 2005. “This is kind of depressing.”
“It’s basically saying, help us talk to the politicians so they will think we do something useful,” Garneau said. “I find that extraordinary. When I was president we had no question what our value was to Canadians. It was our mandate.”
The Agency had said it needed publicists’ help to “present a common narrative in how and why Canada should invest in space”; “The primary audience of the ‘value proposition for space’ is senior officials within the Government of Canada.”
A 2014 survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada found 80 percent of federal researchers cautioned that cuts had hurt innovation, while 80 percent of Space Agency scientists said funding was inadequate.
“The consensus is Canada is not punching above its weight like we used to,” said the Space Society’s Fricker. “We are a dog without teeth. Unfortunately we are no longer the sought-after partner we were in the past for anything, let alone our specialty in space robotics and telecommunications.”
By Kaven Baker-Voakes