Agassiz’s Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre is undergoing a major cut to its roster of scientists.
According to an email from an internal source at the centre, notice was given last week that 16 positions will be cut from the 124-year-old research station, and that as few as five scientists will remain working at the site. Currently, there are 11 scientists and dozens more staff members working on everything from insect rearing to poultry research.
Located on Lougheed Hwy. in Agassiz, the facility consists of 310 hectares, research greenhouses, an arboretum, and the longest-running weather station in the province, dating back to 1889. It is also the only dairy research centre in Western Canada (co-located onsite with the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre), and is one of two dairy research establishments in the entire country.
A call made to the Research Station director was not returned directly, however Agriculture Canada public relations responded. Ag Canada would not confirm the number of jobs cuts, or why, but replied in an email saying: “AAFC managers and human resources specialists are meeting with employees impacted to provide them the information, tools and support they need. The amount of time this process can take varies for each employee according to the situation.”
AAFC calls this a “work force adjustment situation” and indeterminate employees are covered by provisions of an agreement, found on the Treasury Board Secretariat website. Reasons listed on the website under “work force adjustments” are a lack of work, discontinuation of a function, relocation in which the employee does not wish to relocate and alternate delivery initiatives.
Still, the reason for the cutbacks was not made clear in the Agriculture Canada’s response. The Observer has also requested an interview with Gerry Ritz, Canada’s agricultural minister.
Kent Coun. Lorne Fisher feels these cuts could be the death knell for the station.
“There have been cuts going on,” he said. “But this one is more abrupt and of a much larger magnitude … we’re down to where they think they can get rid of us without protest.”
Fisher spent 35 years as a research scientist in Agassiz, and has kept his ties with colleagues and friends through his retirement. He knows firsthand how important the work done in the station is to the Canadian public, conducting publicly funded research and contributing to food safety and security. But he also knows the impact that hundreds of employees have had on the community of Agassiz. Like Fisher, many of the scientists have stepped up as community leaders in their free time and in retirement.
“The research station has contributed a lot here over the years,” he said. “All the major players in this community, in the last hundred years, came from the research centre.”
The station has helped Agassiz keep its farming industry strong, and is a major player in the widely popular Agassiz Fall Fair. For a few years, the fair was even held at the station — then called the Dominion Experimental Farm.
It’s a key part of this community, and Fisher isn’t about to watch it fizzle out.
“I feel the long-term plan is to wipe out the research branch,” Fisher said. “The next step is that somebody like myself will have to do something about it.”
While it could be risky for current scientists to rally against the cuts, Fisher said he has no reason not to speak out. He also feels qualified for the job.
“I’ve done it before,” he said.
In 1995, the research station was slated for closure and Fisher and a few others (including then-mayor Wes Johnson and Ron Dinn) banded together to fight for its survival. That resulted in UBC purchasing the dairy centre. Today, the research station scientists and staff are a major boost to the dairy program.
It’s unclear yet what effect the changes at the station will have on the UBC program.
Hopefully it won’t come to that, Fisher said, as the scientists haven’t been told to leave quite yet.
“In order to turn this around, we’re going to have a pretty serious fight. It will mean going up against (Stephen) Harper and his policies. I think he’s wrong but, he is the prime minister.”
The Canadian Press reported last week that the National Research Council has been told by the federal government “to focus on practical, commercial science and less on fundamental science that may not have obvious business applications.”
But research needs to be carried out independently from business, Fisher said.
“(Harper) does not feel government should provide research services for the general population,” Fisher said. “He feels industry should do it all. This really becomes an issue for food science and food safety. I’m a bit biased because I spent 35 years in the science side of things. But industry will just do what has short-term profit.”
Fisher’s first step in trying to swing the government back in favour of Agassiz’s research station will be contacting MP Mark Strahl. The Observer also contacted Strahl. While an assistant said he is aware of the issues at the station, he could not provide comment before press time (Wednesday).
Another step to drumming up support is through the B.C. government, which has not proven fruitful in recent years, Fisher said.
He added Agassiz and the farming industry needs to promote itself.
“We don’t promote ourselves well enough,” he said. “We desperately need to re-establish high-profile programs, and the only way to do it is with significant input from the provincial government and the universities.”
He said premiers of western provinces are also going to have to stand up and defend their programs.
There are 19 federally funded research stations across the country, including the next closest dairy program in Lennoxville, Que.
Fisher has heard of other western stations being hit by staff reductions in past weeks, including Summerland, Kamloops and Lethbridge, where the cattle program operates. The research centre holds open houses each summer to showcase their work to the public.
Science jobs about at Pacific Agriculture Research Centre – Nov. 19/2012
Agassiz research scientist awarded – Feb 23/2013