Tools and talent
World-class facilities enable Canadian researchers to collaborate in the pursuit of solutions for today’s pressing challenges, including climate change, health issues, food security concerns and the economic downturn.
There is an area north of Ellesmere Island where scientists predict that sea ice will be present even during future summers when the rest of the arctic will have no ice cover. That’s where Guillaume Massé wants to go.
“My aim is to collect sediment samples that will tell us if there ever was a time in history when the area was ice-free in the summer,” explains the Université Laval paleoceanographer.
The region is “very icy and very difficult to access,” but fortunately for Dr. Massé, he has access to the right transportation: the Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Amundsen, a T1200 class medium Arctic icebreaker and research vessel.
Converted to a research vessel in 2003 with funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the Amundsen holds numerous internal and external laboratory spaces and an impressive array of instruments that allow her to complete research assignments from May to November, before resuming icebreaking services for the Canadian Coast Guard.
The Amundsen is equipped with giant corers for lifting sediment samples from the ocean floor, as well as seabed sounding systems that help to locate areas of high-quality sediment deposits, says Dr. Massé. The samples, collected in areas like northern Baffin Bay, are examined for organic chemicals that indicate the presence – or absence – of sea ice.
“Ice-free regions are very productive,” he explains. “There are a lot of algae in the water, which feed zooplankton. Zooplankton feeds birds, marine mammals and fishes, which, in turn, are important for surrounding communities.”
Accessing lower levels of sediment means digging deeper into the past, says Dr. Massé. “We can go back in time to re-construct ocean conditions. This is important to study, not only for communities and ocean productivity, but to understand climate change.”
Dr. Massé, who joined Université Laval three years ago, was still working in France when he first set foot on the Amundsen in 2005. He was impressed right away and says the CFI’s support for such research facilities is admired by researchers around the world.
Dr. Massé adds that a recent CFI grant is helping to bring the vessel’s scientific instruments – many of them installed 10 or 12 years ago – to current standards.
It’s the CFI’s mandate to support world-class research, says Dr. Gilles Patry, president and CEO of the CFI. “We do this by funding research facilities to enable those types of discoveries,” he adds. “And we don’t only fund the infrastructure, we also support the operation of state-of-the art national facilities like the Amundsen.”
Yet funding infrastructure is not enough, says Dr. Patry. “You also need to attract and retain top talent. In our guidelines for selecting the recipients of funding, we ask how a piece of infrastructure is going to attract the participation of the best researchers,” he explains. “We want the infrastructure to act as a magnet for talent and a catalyst for collaboration.”
For Dr. Massé, the facility was not his only reason for coming to Canada. “Since I’m working in the north, the Amundsen is central to my research but it’s only part of the attraction. Equally important are my colleagues at Université Laval and ArcticNet.”
He believes that the CFI’s strategic investments have been crucial for building an impressive network of researchers that enables teamwork.
Dr. Patry also sees collaboration as critically important in research and innovation. “You don’t come up with the next big idea in isolation,” he says. “That’s why we want the best researchers in Canada to work with the best in the world.”
This combined focus on infrastructure and talent has enabled Canada to “punch above its weight class when it comes to research,” says Dr. Patry, who lists regenerative medicine, subatomic physics and quantum computing as fields of particular strength.
Ocean and Arctic research are also areas where Canada has gained recognition as a world leader, according to Dr. Patry. Among the partners responsible for this reputation are Ocean Networks Canada, which is affiliated with the University of Victoria and operates the Neptune and Venus cabled ocean observatories, and the Ocean Tracking Network, an ocean research and technology development platform headquartered at Dalhousie University.
Both initiatives attract a large number of Canadian and international partners, as does ArcticNet, where 34 Canadian universities, including Université Laval, collaborate with government agencies and 150 partner organizations in 14 countries.
And while Dr. Massé’s work focuses on the Canadian Arctic, his findings have global implications, he says. As will the samples he collects from the Amundsen on the day of the interview. “At least 10 to 15 groups of researchers around the world will be working with the sediments we brought back today,” he explains. “Facilities like the Amundsen don’t only benefit Canadian researchers – they help to advance research around the world.”
View entire report on globeandmail.com