Annual Whitefish Meeting

Our Annual Whitefish Meeting was held in Kincardine last week and was a great success.  We spent 2 days in deep discussion of Lake Whitefish stable isotopes, population genetics, heat shock responses, growth and hatching, and stressor impacts.

Our research on whitefish is interdisciplinary and involves a number of collaborators.  From the University of Regina, the labs of Drs. Chris Somers and Richard Manzon study whitefish population genetics and heat shock responses, respectively.  Both have some great new students that have joined our research group this year.  We are very happy to have Katie Sessions join Dan Stefanovic as graduate students on this project in Richard’s lab.  Carly Graham joins Becca Eberts in Chris Somer’s lab this year as well.  Chris’ lab is collaborating with Sean Rogers at the University of Calgary; Jon Mee is a postdoc working in Sean’s lab on Whitefish genomics.  Of course, in the Wilson and Boreham labs, we have 3 new postdocs this year.  Jen Lemon is based in the Boreham lab and will be studying oxidative damage in whitefish embryos in response to stressors such as temperature, radiation and chemicals.  John Eme and Casey Mueller will focus on temperature effects on respiration and cardiovascular function in these fish.

Besides an update on our research progress, we spent part of our time discussing research plans for this year.  It will be an exciting year as we plan to expand our studies to round whitefish, a species reported to be more temperature sensitive than lake whitefish.

Kincardine was a great spot to hold these meetings, right on the shores of Lake Huron where our field sampling takes place.  The leaves were just beginning to turn and it was a great fall research retreat.

Here is our group out at dinner and at our meetings!

Team Whitefish out for dinner

Team Whitefish

Stand Up 4 Science Funding

Scientists in every country will always argue that the funding situation in their country is not sufficient. But that is not what I am going to discuss here. The amount of money, the investment per capita or by GDP, is something that can be argued and debated endlessly. Do I think we invest enough money in science? No. But that isn’t the big funding worry I have. It’s not about the amount but where it goes and how funding decisions are made that bothers me most of all right now.

Science funding comes in several forms. First, there is infrastructure funding which can include bricks and mortar but more typically focuses on equipment and facilities. On the small scale that would include all the equipment in each person’s laboratory. On a moderate scale it includes our animal facilities for the university. On a larger scale it includes our marine stations and the experimental lakes area; places not owned by a single university but shared resources for faculty across Canada and even the world. Second, there can be scholarship and fellowship funds that pay for salaries, typically aimed at our trainees such as graduate students and post doctoral fellows. Third, are the operating grants, the bread and butter of a lab. With these funds we pay for our chemicals and consumables, pipet tips and reagents, travel to conferences, and page charges for publishing our papers.

In Canada, there are funds for larger scale infrastructure funds up to very large projects which are typically located at one university, through the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. We have had smaller funds available for equipment, the research tools and instruments grants, that a single or small group of researchers can apply for. There has also been funding for a few larger research stations. These funds are under great pressure. Indeed, with little notice, the research tools and instrument grants were going to be stopped completely. Fortunately, with a large outcry from the science community, these have been reinstated but with a lot less money. Think of this. You buy a car and use it for years but eventually, it stops working and you have to replace it. Science equipment is like that. It doesn’t last forever and it will need to be replaced. These grants make sure we have access to funds to get new equipment when we need it. But as that money disappears, we will be sitting in labs with aging equipment and no way to really replace it. How can we do science without functioning labs? I have no idea. Claims that we can fit this need into our existing operating grants is simply not true. A graduate student stipend could cost 10-15 thousand dollars a year, if they are partially supported by teaching assistantships. The research tools and instruments grants are in the few to 10s of thousands of dollars. If we divert money for expensive equipment there won’t be money for graduate student support in the grant. And we need both the students and the equipment to do science.

At the other end of the spectrum are the large research stations. These must have federal support because a single institution can’t support one on their own. Researchers from many institutions will go there for unique access to equipment, environments, and/or species. The money for these are being choked off and that is a shame. The experimental lakes area, or ELA, is a primary example of this problem. The ELA is unique in the world as an area to do whole lake experiments. The data coming out of this research station has contributed to changing policies on acid rain and nutrient inputs. It was at the ELA that Karen Kidd’s team demonstrated that low levels of estradiol can wipe out a whole fish population. The data from this place are very convincing because you can manipulate a whole lake- no more extrapolation from small tanks!! Yet, funding was unceremoniously yanked so quickly that researchers with ongoing projects weren’t sure if they could get their project done. Luckily, provincial governments have stepped in to save this but large facilities should not face quick decisions on funding cuts without consultation. And in both these examples, funding for small equipment and our largest research stations, we see a problem. Lack of consultation and lack of long term planning. No apparent understanding of the impacts for the science community.

The other big funding issue has not been a fast change but a slower onslaught that is eroding basic research. The operating grants have always included funds for basic science, curiosity driven science. This may seem like unimportant work but this is the driver of innovation. Listen to Nobel Laureates talk about their research and they mostly say it is curiosity that drove the big discovery. Fundamental discoveries don’t come from applied science but from basic science. But science funding in Canada is more and more tied to to partnership programs. In these cases, researchers must convince an industry or governments agency that their research will be directly useful to the partner. Often it requires the partner to put up some money or in kind service to demonstrate their interest. This can produce some great applied research. Full confession here, I have applied research funding and I am not philosophically opposed to it at all. What I am opposed to is our current balance in these funding streams. Partnership programs are being so well supported it has come at the cost of basic science funding. As our basic funding is eroded so is our chance at truly remarkable discoveries and after all, isn’t discovery what science is really all about?

Stand Up 4 Science

Yesterday marked a day of protest with rallies in several major Canadian cities and a flurry to tweets. The protests were about evidence based policy decisions and the erosion of support for science in Canada. From my perspective, there are at least 3 major and worrisome problems with the current national government policies with regards to science. One is downright alarming. And if you don’t think this matters to you because you aren’t a scientist, you are totally wrong. In a couple of blogs, I thought I’d outline what my concerns are and WHY they matter outside of the hallowed halls of a university…

It isn’t often that science policies in Canada make international news. But after an interview request by the Swedish public radio, I realized that Canada is making science news in a bad way. The muzzling of governmental scientists may seem like a minor issue, after all they aren’t guaranteed academic freedom like tenured professors are. Yet, their ability to discuss their research is critical for public policy decisions. This new practice, put in place by our current government, is what is really behind Stand Up for Science but I think this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of a government anti-science climate.

Government scientists work in major agencies (think Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada..) but perform research in service of government policy needs. They are funded by the Canadian government and produce good quality science. Like university professors, they do research, attend conferences, publish papers. But their focus does not include teaching and instead they focus on real world problems that Canada needs to deal with. Think water and air quality guidelines, for example. Their research and expertise is meant to provide Canada with the tools to make sound policy decision that protect our health, environment, natural resources, and economy. Important right?

One way that government scientists help with public policy is when they speak to the public. This is often done through media interviews and contributions to news stories. This discourse helps inform the public, who in the end have a voice in our government policies. Yet, the government has instituted media policies in place that inhibit that exchange and in some cases, appear to block government scientists from speaking about their research.

Democracy Watch and the Environmental Law Clinic at UVic have, based on a report issued from the clinic, have filed a complaint with the federal Information Commissioner. The complaint is currently being investigated. The effects of these new policies are chilling. Government scientists don’t feel that they can speak freely about their work. But here’s the catch – TAXPAYERS are the ones who PAY for the research so why can’t they hear about the results? I really don’t get it. How bad is it? Well in my own field, aquatic toxicology, we have an international society that brings together industry, government and academic (university based) researchers. At a recent annual meeting, the government scientists from Canada were given some directions in answering questions. One reply? “I am a scientist. I’m not in a position to answer that question, but I’d be happy to refer you to the appropriate spokesperson”. Personally, I don’t want to hear some canned answer from a spokesperson. I want to hear from the person doing the research. In the end, they know it best.

So why should the public care? Beyond the fact that this is a democracy, that the public paid for the research, the public should be interested in finding out about the science performed by the government research labs. This will help frame the public discussion about major policy decisions, help the public understand major issues needing attention, and clarify what science knows about these issues. And the public will not be reading science journal, they will not be attending science conferences but they do read the news. It is silly to think they could get the information otherwise, but then again, it seems like that is the point. And that is why everyone should care.

Interested in this? check out Democracy Watch:

The UVic Environmental Law Clinic and Democracy Watch report and request to the Information Commissioner:

Welcome John and Casey to the Wilson Lab

This August marks the arrival of two new post-doctoral researchers to the Wilson lab.  John Eme and Casey Mueller have joined the lab to work on our whitefish project.  Both come from recent post-doctoral positions at the University of North Texas.

John got his PhD in Biology from the University of California, Irvine and has a strong research interest in cardiopulmonary physiology.  He is a comparative biologist at heart (pun intended) and you can see that in the list of species he has worked on.

Casey hails from Australia and received her PhD in Comparative Physiology from the University of Adelaide.  Her physiological research emphasis is on developing organisms and she will provide great support to all of the whitefish work with her training in developmental biology.

Welcome to the Wilson lab and we are looking forward to having your here for the next two years!  Please read more about Casey and John, and the rest of the lab, on our people pages.

Welcome back to Mac

After a GREAT year at the Biological and Environmental Science Department at the University of Gothenburg, I am back at McMaster University.  I can’t thank my Swedish colleagues enough for such a wonderful year.  First, the CYP lab, headed by Dr. Malin Celander, was a great place to spend a year and I so enjoyed working with Johanna Grans and Britt Wassmur.  Johanna taught me how to cannulate a trout and prepare primary hepatocyte cultures, an in vitro assay tool that I have been looking to bring into my lab for a while.  I was fortunate enough to spend time at the wonderful Sven Loven Marine Science Centre at Kristineberg and work with Ola Svensson and Eva-Lotta Blom.  Our research on sand gobies taught me a lot about a new species and completing behavioural experiments.


I must say that I was ready to come back home.  My students need some of my time and two are preparing to complete their theses.  I think they were happy to see me too! My welcome back included a few surprises, of course.  Like the shark in my office. I am not sure the photo does it justice.  It was festive (note the hat!) but also HUGE!  So large that my meeting table couldn’t hold it and it needed an extra chair and straps to keep it in place.  I’ve been told it will have a new home today….