Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lab needs superior leader

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In case Ottawa has suffered a memory loss, Canada's National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg was heralded as a world-class organization dedicated to the protection of Canadian and global public health when it opened in 1999.

Several international organizations, including the World Health Organization, paid tribute at the time to Canada for creating a state-of-the-art facility that would play a vital role in protecting human health around the world.

Fast-forward to the present, however, and there's an apparent disconnect between the institution's reputation and the federal government's commitment to maintaining it.

Dr. Frank Plummer, a world-renowned scientist, retired last March after 14 years at the helm of the laboratory. It was assumed the government would conduct a search for someone of comparable ability and talent.

The obscure ad on a Government of Canada website for a replacement, however, has raised concerns the Harper government doesn't hold the position in very high esteem. The job was posted April 23 and closes May 28, a timeline that critics say rules out a search for someone with the highest credentials as a scientist and manager.

The proposed pay scale also raises doubts about the government's motives. The pay starts at $132,600 for someone with a minor degree in a health-related field, rising to $231,924 for candidates with a medical degree.

The basic pay won't attract an experienced health-field manager, while the top level is also unlikely to draw the interest of a suitable candidate.

So, what gives? Is it simple negligence or ignorance, an oversight that will quickly be corrected?

Or is the job being downgraded because scientists now working at the lab are managing the technical requirements with excellence?

Dr. Plummer had reported directly to Canada's chief public health officer -- the equivalent of a deputy minister -- who reports to the minister of health.

Unless the organization chart is about to change, which it should not, then the possible hiring of an office manager will seriously weaken the lab's relationship with Ottawa, where key decisions are made about its operations and future.

The microbiology lab, remember, is not an ivory tower dedicated to theoretical science, but a war room that is actively involved in public health on a daily basis. Shortly after it opened, for example, the lab dealt with a series of potential crises, including suspicion a woman from Congo living in Hamilton was infected with the deadly and highly infectious ebola virus.

If a pandemic or contagious-disease crisis hits Canada, a $3-million emergency-operations centre in the lab will be the nerve centre that plots, plans and co-ordinates the response. It's one of the best facilities of its kind in the world, with the tools to connect with similar institutions globally.

The government, however, has responded in trademark fashion -- with silence.

Canadians need to know if Ottawa is committed to what was once called the "crown jewel" in international containment of infectious diseases, or if it has other plans.

Either way, the government should call off the search until the public's concerns have been addressed, and the air cleared.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 2, 2014 A10

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