DFO maps out research and collaboration opportunities fueled by new funding

Mark Henderson
November 9, 2016

Major boost in A-base funding

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is replenishing its scientific personnel and reaching out to new partners and collaborators as it executes an ambitious strategic plan to implement a badly needed influx of funding. New investments are being fuelled by more than $200 million over five years in new A-based funding from the 2016 federal Budget in marine conservation, a marine protected area program, energy and climate change.

The Budget's injection of $41.5 million a year in new A-based funding affords DFO a long-awaited opportunity to invest in a range of scientific activities including technology, partnerships and its "largest single recruitment toward restoring ocean science" which suffered significant cuts under the previous Conservative government. The science sector's budget now stands at more than $280 million.

"This is a real supercharge for us. It's the largest single investment in ocean science in at least a generation," says Trevor Swerdfager, DFO's ADM science. "(Budget 2016) has had a galvanizing and transformative effect and has positioned us to not just feel good but do good."

The new funding is sufficient to replace the 300 scientific positions that had been eliminated in recent years, but Swerdfager says he chose a different approach. In addition to allocating funds to hire 135 new research scientists, biologists, oceanographers and technicians — 70 positions have already been filled through internal and external hiring pools and student bridging — the funds are being used to purchase sorely needed new technology, invest in open data and open information and enter new partnerships.

The Budget also provided DFO and Natural Resources Canada with $81.3 million to enhance marine conservation activities and develop new National Marine Conservation Areas, triggering 19 new DFO hires.

DFO's November 7th announcement of a $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan contains further research-related initiatives including increased domestic and international collaboration on oil spills response, research investments to develop and improve oil spill trajectory models and more timely science-based expertise during "incidents".

"The new investments have been pretty good for morale. There are still issues about amounts but on balance the level of engagement in the public service is going up," says Swerdfager. "Part of it is the money but it's also the attitude. The promise attached to science has been high recently … Science is back."

As an illustration, Swerdfager says DFO's recruitment call elicited responses from 5,000 people which was reduced to 2,000 after written tests were completed. DFO officials are now wrapping up five weeks of interviews of nearly 1,500 people across the country to fill the remaining 135 positions.

In addition to bolstering its internal science capacity, DFO is aggressively courting partnerships through its new Office of Partnership and Collaboration (OPC) which has a $5-million annual fund to support the activities of partners and collaborators. Investments to date include a $521,000 contribution to Ocean Networks Canada to organize Pacific fisheries, mammal and ocean data, investments in collaborative Atlantic salmon research projects and support for Ocean School, a novel program aimed at students aged 11 to 15 in collaboration with Dalhousie Univ and the National Film Board.

With a staff of 14, OPC aims to leverage its investments by a factor of three although Swerdfager says leverage is not a precondition when considering new partnerships. Up to 20 investments are expected in the office's first fiscal year although that number will likely decline in the future as the amounts increase.

"We want to engage to explore future opportunities … We need to become a bigger part of the larger community," says Swerdfager.

"Budget 2016 proposes to provide $197.1 million over five years, starting in 2016–17, to Fisheries and Oceans Canada to increase ocean and freshwater science, monitoring and research activities and to provide support for the Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario. Funding will support new and expanded research activities that will promote the health of fish stocks and sustainable aquaculture, enable more comprehensive monitoring of the impacts of aquatic pollution, and enhance our knowledge of freshwater ecosystems." — Budget 2016

To that end, DFO spearheaded the creation of the Ocean Research Canada Alliance (ORCA) with six other ocean-focused organizations (see chart) as a mechanism to:

• Enhance communication among government and academic ocean science organizations;

• Allow for development of Canadian perspectives and priorities for domestic and international ocean science discussions; and,

• Provide a collaborative forum with the goals of leveraging Canadian capacity (expertise and infrastructure) in ocean science, and establish a more coordinated approach for Canada's ocean science and research community, driven by complementary priorities.

"ORCA is designed to convene and create a table for the ocean scientific community where we can state DFO priorities and align with others," says Swerdfager. "We hope it will gather people at the leadership level."

Oceans Research Canada

Alliance (ORCA)

Ocean Networks Canada (ONC)

Canadian Consortium of

Ocean Research Universities (CCORU)

Marine Environmental Observation

Prediction and Response (MEOPAR)

Canadian Healthy Oceans Network (CHONe)


Ocean Tracking Network (OTN)

Government of Canada

DFO is also part of the Trans Atlantic Science Accord, which has its genesis in Canada's 2013 signing of the Galway Statement on Atlantic Ocean Cooperation with the US and European Union.

Enhance Dalhousie collaboration

For Dalhousie Univ, the increase to DFO's science budget comes as it collects its various ocean-related initiatives into a single entity with the establishment of the Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI). Headed by Dr Wendy Watson-Wright, a former DFO ADM science, the OFI was created with $93.7 million from the latest competition of Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) (R$, September 22/16).

OFI's scientific director, Dr Marlon Lewis, says DFO's new emphasis on collaboration bodes well for future interaction.

"I hope this becomes more of an institutional relationship in the future with collaboration to get it back the way it used to be ... DFO supported our CFREF proposal and wants to become a more formal partner," says Lewis. "The new money and people will be significant, absolutely."

Lewis says he's particularly hopeful about DFO's bid to join the Canadian participation in the Integrated Atlantic Ocean Observing System, utilizing automated robotic observatories to monitor coastal and blue water ocean territory.


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