OTTAWA-The National Research Council managed to dampen the celebration of Canadian John Polanyi's Nobel Prize in chemistry last month by announcing on the same day that it was eliminating the section where he did his re search as part of widespread cuts in science funding.
The Council said it would save $20 million by eliminating 200 positions and dozens of programs. (The Canadian dollar is worth 72 cents U.S.) About $12 million will be diverted to Canada's space program, to support its communications satellites and other applied projects. The rest will contribute to shrinking the country's $34 billion budget deficit. The cuts include the photochemistry and kinetics section at the University of Toronto, where Polanyi laid the groundwork in the late 1950s for the development of the chemical laser with his work on molecular reactions.
"It's an unfortunate coincidence," acknowledged Ross Pottie, a senior vice president of laboratories for the Research Council, about the timing of the Council's press conference. "We had no idea Dr. Polanyi was going to win the Nobel Prize today."
The Council's announcement is the latest in a number of moves that have lowered morale in the government's chief agency for re search in the physical sciences and engineering. Taken together, they have provided powerful ammunition for critics of the Progressive Conservative (PC) government which, like the Reagan administration, has been trying simultaneously to reduce a huge deficit and shift responsibility for scientific re search and development from government to the private sector.
Financial pressures have forced the Council to chop 400 positions in the past two years. Its budget has fallen from $520 million to $400 million since the PC government took power in the fall of 1984. The cuts, however, do not mean that 400 scientists will be out of a job. Some will be retrained, some will be shifted to other positions, and others will choose early retirement.
An advertisement attacking the cuts appeared recently in several major Canadian newspapers. Sponsored by the organization that represents government scientists, the unusual appeal on behalf of re search funding argued that the country's current economic troubles require an increase, not a de crease, in spending on science. It urged readers to write the Prime Minister with their views.
The formation of a national space agency is part of the government's decision to make the space program a priority. A call for such an agency was made 20 years ago by the Science Council of Canada, a quasi-independent body that advises the government. Last year, in another irony, the Council had its $5 million budget and 68-member staff cut in half by the Mulroney government.
The government is trying to persuade industry to share the burden for support of research and development. In February it announced a plan to provide as much as 6 percent more per year to the fund-granting councils to match contributions from industry for specific projects. The offer would cover projects funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Medical Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the groups of scientists that review proposals from university researchers. Their combined budgets for 1986-87 are $562 million.
Under the plan, the councils would also receive something they never have enjoyed: assured funding for the next five years. Opponents said the small increases promised the councils would barely match the expected rate of inflation. Any real increase in funding, they added, would be dependent on the response to the offer by industry.
Spurgeon is a science writer and communications consultant in Ottawa.