AAAS: Space budget cuts could lead to brain drain: CSA president

Elizabeth Howell
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Three-quarters of dollars allocated to agency goes to private companies

In a telling sign of worry surrounding the upcoming federal budget, the head of the Canadian Space Agency expressed grave concern about the future of space research in this country.

An artist’s conception of Radarsat-2, built by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates.

Steve MacLean's comments were predictive not only for the space companies in Ottawa that get a share of federal funds, but also foretold of uncertainty for all firms receiving procurement dollars, which are awaiting news of the budget to come later this month.

He delivered his comments at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in February in Vancouver. It's an annual international gathering of scientists that is usually held in the United States.

"My biggest fear in these budget cuts is if the space agency gets hurt a lot, we're going to lose (talent)," Mr. MacLean told 100 delegates at a plenary lecture.

The agency operates under a procurement model under which 75 per cent of its money flows out to companies to undertake research and technology building, he said. This is up from 68 per cent when he was appointed to head the agency in 2009. Many Ottawa companies are among the recipients.

The former astronaut, who began his career as a laser physicist, worries that the young researchers the agency supports in school will not stay in Canada after they graduate.

"We have to continue to attract the best," said the two-time space flier.

During two speeches at AAAS, Mr. MacLean highlighted Canadian space applications that are rarely discussed publicly - monitoring harmful algae blooms and landslides, tracking rogue ships and providing real-time water level conditions to disaster teams after tsunamis, to name a few.

The speeches appeared to be an offensive ahead of the federal budget to show the use of space in everyday life by agencies such as the Department of Defence and Environment Canada.

His comments also came amid worries recently expressed by Ottawa companies about what will happen next following a surge of stimulus funding that temporarily boosted local space research.

Neptec developed two prototype rovers with the help of this funding, Juno and Artemis, but the people assigned to those projects will need to move elsewhere if no money is forthcoming, said Neptec president Iain Christie in a December interview.

From a flat budget of around $310 million for the better part of a decade, the CSA received an additional $110 million in 2009 to be spent by March 31 this year. Its budget will reach $424.6 million in 2012 and is slated to fall to $317.5 million by 2013.

That latter number could change in the coming federal budget. All departments have been required to submit scenarios detailing cuts of about 10 per cent, and early indications are the federal government will accelerate its attack on the deficit.


Subtle space race

While Ottawa is home to the offices of several companies primarily focused on the space market, such as Com Dev, MDA and Neptec, other diversified firms fly under the radar with their extraterrestrial activities.

- Calian Technologies Ltd.'s business technology and services division (BTS) captures mapping data flowing from the two Radarsat satellites on behalf of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, which in turn processes the data and sells it to customers. Calian's systems engineering division (SED) operates the Radarsat spacecraft on behalf of the Canadian Space Agency, and Radarsat-2 (in partnership with fellow Ottawa company Telesat) on behalf of MDA. Overall, remote sensing is one to two per cent of BTS's business and four to five per cent of SED's business.

- PCI Geomatics creates software that allows customers to correct the imagery collected by several commercial remote sensing satellites such as the CSA's Radarsat-1 and 2 , the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Landsat series and DigitalGlobe's WorldView-1 and 2. The software developed by PCI Geomatics is used by companies that supply corrected imagery to popular consumer mapping platforms including Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps and Bing Maps. Overall company revenues are $8 million to $15 million a year, with flat growth due to the strong Canadian dollar.

- QNX Software Systems, a division of Waterloo-based RIM, creates operating systems for use in space applications. One application is with Neptec, a well-known space company, on an advanced space vision system. The system lets astronauts judge distances in space, where it is challenging to do so due to changing lighting conditions and a lack of landmarks.

Elizabeth Howell was one of 17 working Canadian journalists who received an award from the Canadian Science Writers' Association and EurekAlert! to attend the AAAS conference.

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