There may be a new home for Canadian space scientists in the coming months and years. A new not-for-profit research institute, called the Earth and Planetary Institute of Canada (EPIC), is aiming to resolve core issues facing Canadian space scientists (and scientists in general) that are looking to do research in Canada outside of the traditional academic sector, while at the same time providing a valuable resource for both public institutions and the private space sector.
SpaceQ found out more about the new venture in an interview with the Institute’s founders: Dr. Tanya Harrison, who worked in science and mission operations for NASA on the Perseverance, Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, recently worked as Director of Science for Impact at Planet Labs, and and now works as EPIC’s CEO; and Western University Professor Gordon Osinski, who is a celebrated international expert on impact craters and Principal Investigator for the Canadian Lunar Rover Mission.
Looking for Canadian Space Options
The general idea of EPIC is providing options for Canadian space scientists to actually do space research in Canada. Harrison and Osinski were aware that there were serious challenges facing them; while Canada has a number of world-class graduate programs that are producing a healthy amount of high-quality researchers every year, there simply aren’t enough academic positions in Canada to absorb those researchers.
Some, like Harrison during her time at Planet Labs, can find work in the private sector. But many end up in a cycle of unstable and poorly-paid post-doc positions, before ending up having to leave Canada entirely in order to find work in the field. In the interview, Harrison said that studies have shown that up to 40 percent of these researchers—ones that Canada paid to educate—end up benefiting space science elsewhere. “Only one in five,” she added, “end up finding a full time faculty position at all over a fifteen-year time span.”
Osinski said that “that brain drain issue is why we think we will be very complimentary with universities,” rather than simply competing.
So they looked southward for possible solutions. Osinski said that, in the US, “there are other types of institutes, research focused institutes…[like the] lunar planetary institute, the planetary science institute and a few others.” but in Canada “we really have the one option and that’s with the universities.” He said that it was “a niche and a void to be filled in the Canadian ecosystem, which is a research institute, not affiliated with any university.” That became the inspiration for EPIC.
They emphasized, however, that they weren’t simply copying the American institute model; that it won’t, as Osinski put it, “just be a [Canadian] Planetary Science Institute.”
In part, that’s because EPIC will have a wider focus. It’s called the “Earth and Planetary” because they see Earth science and Earth observation as a key part of the Institute’s work, instead of focusing solely on planetary science. But, also, it’s because many of these American institutes are what Harrison described as “soft-money research institutes,” serving primarily as an institutional affiliation for researchers that are expected to primarily fund themselves by applying for and winning their own research grants.
Osinski and Harrison don’t want to go down that road; not only because Canadian grant money is generally earmarked towards universities, but because there simply isn’t enough of it available compared to the United States. So, Harrison said, they are looking to build something “a little bit more diversified and hopefully more sustainable in terms of the variety of funding sources for the researchers.” Through this diversification, they aim to offer researchers a reasonable living wage, one that will allow them to remain in Canada as reasonably prosperous scientists.
In addition, EPIC isn’t tied down to any particular physical location. While EPIC is headquartered in BC, it will accept researchers across Canada. Osinski highlighted “the virtual aspect of our institute [as] a pro for folks that could be anywhere in Canada.” Going virtual will help fulfill the intense demand for remote positions, in the face of return-to-office demands by corporate and public-sector executive management, while also granting the Institute the freedom and flexibility to draw on a coast-to-coast pool of prospective researchers.
Diversified Revenue and a New Home for Research
Their website, while still early, does provide an indication of how this diversification may work. It lists four “focus areas”: research, consulting, training, and engagement. Harrison went into some detail about how each of these were going to work, and how they slotted into the Institute’s diversified approach.
The primary focus is definitely research. Harrison said that, while they weren’t planning on running a “soft-money” institute like many of their American counterparts, they did appreciate the value of institutional affiliation for getting research grants. And while there is more money “flying around through things like the National Science Foundation and NASA,” as she put it, Canada is starting to engage in serious space-related support. She pointed to RADARSAT+, lunar rovers, Canada’s involvement in Artemis, and WildFireSat (among others) as examples of Canadian public investment in space-related work outside of academia.
While those investments are impressive, she was reminded that “we’re going to need people on the other side that are actually analyzing the data coming back from these things.” While the universities can and will contribute, there’s still a lot of room for scientists outside of both private enterprise and academia to contribute and EPIC may serve as an institution that can help bridge that gap. Harrison points to American research organizations like NASA Harvest, and their role as an umbrella organization that gets block research grants from NASA, as an inspiration for how EPIC may work as a research organization in Canada.
At the moment, that may be difficult. Harrison said that “right now, the way that the grants are structured in Canada, [the scientists] have to come from a university or post-secondary institution, unless it’s something that’s geared towards industry…we’ve got to see if we can get those definitions expanded.” She’s optimistic, though; she believes that it’s not so much that there are rules against non-profit research institutes like EPIC were being “actively excluded” from many of these programs, so much as the issue “probably didn’t come to mind, because an institute like this didn’t exist.”
In fact, during the announcement of EPIC’s creation at Space Canada’s SpaceBound conference in Ottawa, Harrison said that there was “lots and lots of enthusiasm” among the attendees. She said that attendees were telling her “this is something that Canada needs,” suggesting that there may be solid momentum among lawmakers and policymakers to create opportunities for EPIC to get involved in publicly-funded research.
Consulting and Training
Nevertheless, this diversified approach means that they’re also exploring other non-research-related opportunities. That’s why one of the other focal areas is “consulting”; helping to “empower burgeoning space enterprises in Canada with a solid scientific foundation for their mission and technology.”
Harrison said that part of her work at Planet Labs was “selling science”; that often she was talking with people at the company about ways and means by which scientists could help the company better serve its customers and refine its products, and why “supporting the scientific community was important for us to do.” She also routinely talked with researchers in the public sector and academia about the value of commercial data, and of collaborating with companies like Planet Labs to produce products. “It worked out really well for us on both sides,” she said, especially as university researchers are often “operating very separately from NGOs and companies.”
She sees EPIC as serving in a somewhat similar fashion, bridging the gap between researchers and business. Universities are excellent at doing research in the “conceptual phase,” as she put it, while organizations like EPIC can reach out to businesses and provide what could well be called “science-as-a-service.” This may be especially valuable in Canada, as Canadian space companies tend to be more engineering-heavy, and may not yet know what research scientists can provide to their efforts, nor have the scientists on staff to be able to fulfill those needs.
Instead of having those scientists on hand, they’ll be able to reach out to Harrison and Osinski’s new institute, and be able to tap into the resources that they might need. Harrison gave agriculture as one example, where Earth observation companies may want assistance with better understanding product market fit for various data products. EPIC could fulfill that need.
Another need, and another stated area of focus, is “training:” to “equip students and early career researchers with essential tools and skills to utilize space data and access space missions.”
This is slightly more straightforward. Osinski has been providing training assistance to space agencies and others for years. The CSA has an article about Osinski taking CSA astronauts Jeremy Hansen and Jenni Gibbons, along with NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Raja Chari and a number of others, to a remote meteorite impact crater in northern Labrador named Kamestastin.
The trip was for planetary science training, and for lunar geology training, as Canada has a number of remote locations that serve well as analogs for planetary locations elsewhere in the solar system. They learned about effective instruments and techniques for handling the lunar surface, practicing spacewalk techniques, and sampling an “enigmatic” rock called anorthosite, which is rare on Earth but common on the Moon.
This kind of training will only increase as both private space operators and official space agencies turn their attention to the Moon and Mars. EPIC is in an excellent position to help fulfill that need. Harrison and Osinski are already exploring options in that respect, and will be making decisions in the coming months.
Yet Harrison said that this wasn’t the only kind of training they were looking at. Returning to the question of Earth observation, she noted that AI “is exploding everywhere,” but particularly in the analysis of the immense imagery and data that comes from modern earth observation platforms. Yet, she said, “people in my age bracket of planetary scientists…didn’t generally get a lot of training in programming,” let alone the specialized toolset needed with machine learning algorithms. That’s a serious issue, considering the data is so vast that, Harrison said, “no human can go through all of it.”
So, as part of their diversified approach, EPIC may be looking at how and where they can provide a “crash course” that can help scientists use these tools, and in filling in other skill gaps that they notice in the Canadian space community.
Finally, both of them are keenly interested in EPIC’s other stated focus area: engagement. While they’re careful to note that EPIC will not be engaged in policy advocacy or political advocacy, leaving that to organizations like Space Canada, Harrison said that “[Osinski] and I are both super passionate about public engagement.”
Osinski is a well-known figure in planetary science, and is considered as a key expert on the issue of impact craters—something that will become even more valuable as craters becoming key to the search for water on the moon. Harrison, meanwhile, operates her own YouTube channel on space and planetary science with a focus on Mars, has made a variety of media appearances, has featured in articles seen in Reuters, Nature, Gizmodo and elsewhere, and has even done her own TEDx talk on space.
Harrison said that “there’s not great awareness across Canada, outside of our space bubble, of just how much Canada actually does in space” as well as “the fact that there are opportunities to work in space while staying in Canada,” especially if you’re an engineer. Both want to “get the word out,” as Harrison put it, especially as key programs like Artemis and the lunar rover program move forward. Osinski has already done some work on outreach with Canadian space companies, through a separate nonprofit, and Harrison said that they’re looking into rolling that into EPIC.
Work with the media is also seen as something on the table; even aside from providing media with access to both cutting-edge research and specialized expertise, Harrison said that helping space sector people with media training may also be on the table.
At the moment, it’s still early days, and they’re still working things out. Harrison said that people have already expressed “a ton of interest” in working with them, and that they’d even be willing to volunteer until the Institute’s revenue streams begin coming online. When told about EPIC, Harrison said that many are saying “oh my gosh, how can I get involved.”
So there’s clearly interest, and clearly a need. It just comes down to making sure that they sort out the funding, and can begin offering an alternative for Canadian researchers and the consumers of Canadian research.