There is a fundamental disconnection between the nation's scientists and political leaders over what Ottawa is doing for research.

The scientists complain that the federal government has slashed funding for research and, as a result, Canada runs the risk of a "brain drain" to the United States, where the new Obama administration is pouring money into the field. The government, on the other hand, says it has increased research funding by billions of dollars and the complaining scientists are cry babies. They are both right.

In the January budget, government did, indeed, slash funding for its three basic research granting councils by $148 million over three years. And there was no new funding in the budget for Genome Canada, another key government granting agency. These cutbacks come when the Obama administration is pouring $10 billion into health research alone while also lifting limits on stem cell research.

But the government rightly notes that the January budget also ploughed more than $3 billion into other research envelopes, including $2 billion for new or upgraded facilities on campuses. That was in response to a direct request from the universities.

Accordingly, the federal Conservatives feel aggrieved that they are now being targeted for criticism from the same sector. "There are some people who like to pick fights to get their names in the paper," grumped Science Minister Gary Goodyear last week.

But the scientists respond that it is pointless to invest in modernizing a lab if there isn't any money to operate it.

Part of this dispute reflects the old fight over funding for "applied" as opposed to "pure" research. The government seems to lean toward the former. For instance, the budget contained another $200 million for the Industrial Research Assistance Program, which gives grants to small and mid-size companies to develop or adapt new technologies. But the scientists say you can't have one without the other.

There was no real explanation given by government in the budget for the $148 million cut to basic research grants. The budget bureaucratese spoke of the need for "streamlining operations" and "aligning programs" with the government's objectives.

There are reports that Goodyear is quietly assuring people in the field that this cut will be restored in future budgets. If so, there seems no reason why that couldn't be done now. The amount in question is minuscule when compared to the $76.5 billion cumulative deficit projected over next three fiscal years (less than two-tenths of 1 per cent). And the danger of losing scientists and projects to the U.S. is real if the government waits until later.