Wither are you going, DFO?
The media has recently reported that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is closing its environmental chemistry and toxicology programs. This action is short-sighted. I worked almost 33 years at DFO’s St. Andrews Biological Station (SABS) in St. Andrews, N.B.
In 1988 DFO decided to separate chemistry and biology and to place them in different organizational structures and sometime in the 2000s, went a step further and organized two specialized chemistry centres, one on each coast. These centres now appear to be closing. Instead of in-house expertise and laboratories, DFO will rely on contracts for environmental chemistry and toxicology work.
State-of-the-art analytical chemistry equipment is very expensive and cannot be duplicated in several locations; maintaining it in just one or two laboratories is a good decision. On the other hand, chemical expertise and routinely-equipped laboratories should be present in all DFO’s research establishments. Contracts cannot replace them. Contracts are suitable for well-defined tasks with precise endpoints, provided the results are checked by in-house knowledge. Contracts are useless for exploratory projects. When I began work with the water pollution section (WPS) of SABS in the late 1960s, my first project was to participate in a study of salmon movement in the Miramichi estuary. I concentrated on organic chemicals whose major sources were two pulp mills and a wood-preserving plant, which used, as it was common knowledge, creosote. I soon detected a high concentration of pentachlorophenol in the effluent. At the same time, WPS was also studying acidification of a river receiving a tailings pond effluent in northeastern New Brunswick. The investigation was carried out by a contract awarded to a university and by in-house measurement of heavy metals and pH in water samples. No cause of the acidification was found, but when I added hydrochloric acid to a sample, release of colloidal sulfur showed that the acidification was caused by thiosalts formed by oxidation of pyrite in the mine’s concentrator, and the rest is history. Shortly afterwards, SABS was called on to investigate massive herring kills in Long Harbour, Nfld. suspected to be caused by yellow (elemental) phosphorus. Our tests demonstrated its high toxicity to herring. Since it’s also highly toxic to humans, this was dangerous work and could not have been carried out without an in-house lab and chemical expertise. As a result of our work, a company accepted responsibility for the fish kills.
In another example from my time with DFO, a survey of DDT in freshwater and marine fish was performed by a contract, without in-house quality control. The contractor’s report did not mention PCBs, or even the presence of unidentified peaks in the gas chromatograms, although PCBs must have been present. This again is an example of a failed contract, since, among other things, PCBs interfere with the measurement of DDT. These examples illustrate the importance of on-site labs and chemical expertise, and the impossibility of replacing such studies by contracts. There is a need to maintain chemical and toxicological expertise in all DFO research establishments. In response to the decision to eliminate it, I wonder “Quo vadis DFO?” [Whither are you going, DFO?]
Alanna Mitchell’s article “Water Works” (July/August 2012) bemoans the fact that good ideas developed in the science halls of our universities do not make it “out of the lab.” (One exception pointed out was, sadly, picked up by a French company, not a Canadian company.)
Most universities have a faculty dedicated to entrepreneurial pursuits. It seems obvious that the science folks should partner with these budding business people to bring the former’s ideas to fruition. Indeed, within a university, there should be a requirement for these two disciplines to cooperate by assigning a potential “good idea” to a senior or graduate business student as a bachelor’s or master’s project with the object of developing the idea into a viable business model. I see a place for the engineering department to become involved as well.
Gordon A. Boyce
Ethics radar pinging
In response to the latest Canadian science budget (Letters to the editor, ACCN, June 2012), I am feeling increasingly torn. I am so fortunate to have a dynamic, wonderful research group of motivated and ambitious students, post-docs, undergraduates and others (our highly qualified personnel!), and the most important thing I can do, as their supervisor, is to repay their effort and loyalty by supporting them for the rest of their careers as best I can.
I am torn because, in the past, I did everything in my power to help them find their first “real” jobs in Canadian academia, government and industry, and I will of course continue to do so if that is their wish. However, these days, with respect to academia, my ethics radar is pinging loudly because I am concerned about the future of young researchers in this country. I sense a moral dilemma. Can we continue to promote academia to our young people when they are faced with substantial cuts that potentially undermine their ability to do their job, if they can even get one?
Scholarships and equipment grants are under attack, and these cuts hurt young people far more than older, established people like me. Even the number of new professorial jobs that I could see this year in Canada was very low as universities grapple with budget challenges. Minor top-ups to “starting” Discovery Grants do little to help these new professors get their programs kick-started. We are competing now with aggressive and highly funded universities in the Middle East, Asia and Europe that are wooing our best and brightest with an increasingly loud siren call; I've now personally witnessed top young Canadian-trained highly qualified personnel move to assistant professor positions in Saudi Arabia, Germany, Korea and China in the past two years thanks to funding packages that will allow them a fair chance.
To lose a generation of researchers will be devastating to Canadian science. We have little time to act to prevent this enormous loss of talent.
Professor of Chemistry
University of Alberta
Correction: The Kingston, Ont. company, PARTEQ Innovations, does not receive paid industry sponsors as stated on page 25 of the July/August 2012 issue (“Water Works” by Alanna Mitchell). The sponsors mentioned are associated with PARTEQ’s spinoff, GreenCentre Canada.
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