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It’s a Bad Time to be a Scientist in Canada

Posted by Ethan Clow on May 24, 2012

My ability to stay politically neutral when it comes to skepticism is getting very difficult. It’s made worse when horrible decisions like this happen, if you’re a  a marine biologist in Canada, you might want to look for work elsewhere. That’s because a program called the Experimental Lakes Area, a world renown research facility in Northern Ontario is being shut down by budget cuts from the Government of Canada.

The Experimental Lakes Area, a region of 58 lakes near Kenora, Ont., that scientists have used for groundbreaking experiments and it will be shut down as a result of budget cuts by March 2013, in addition there will be about 400 layoffs in Winnipeg’s regional Fisheries and Oceans Canada office.

The closure of the ELA has provoked some harsh criticism for the government.

To quote Harvard University aquatic sciences Prof. Elsie Sunderland:

“I was pretty shocked, This is one of the foremost research projects and places to do research in the world. To have it shut down is just appalling. It’s just embarrassing.”

To quote Cynthia Gilmour, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland:

“I was stunned, The ELA has contributed to environmental policy for 40 years, and the long-term records alone on temperature and ice cover are absolutely invaluable.”

At the ELA scientists test a verity of different environmental focused research issues. They monitor long term ecological impact of various pollutants, human impact on fresh water, and how to develop successful strategies for dealing with these dangers to fresh water and the ecosystem. The big difference between what was happening at the ELA compared to other research facilities is that the ELA is doing long running experiments, in some cases, decade long research. There isn’t another place like that in the world.

The effect that research at the ELA has had is far reaching. Before moving to Harvard, Sunderland, originally from Nova Scotia, worked for years creating policy at the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Research done at the experimental lakes on the effects of mercury on fish and waterways was discussed at the highest levels of the EPA and helped form the basis of new regulations on coal-fired power plant emissions. Those new rules became official in December.

Work on the lakes has also led to continent-wide policy shifts on acid rain, changes to the way hydro dams are built, a ban on phosphorus in detergents and huge advancements in the battle against the green algae that fouls Lake Winnipeg beaches every summer.

This summer, ELA staff and researchers from Trent University were slated to begin a new long-term project on the effects of nanoparticles, an emerging multi-billion-dollar technology, on waterways and fish.

Federal officials say the ELA no longer “aligned with the department’s mandate and is not responding to our research priorities.” Ottawa hopes a university or the provinces will take over funding the project.

“It makes more sense to allow it to be owned and operated by those who will benefit from this unique research facility,” said Erin Filliter, spokeswoman for federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield.

In reality this sort of project is well out of the reach of a university.  For one, this is decade-long research, and based on how research is done at the ELA – where scientists will deliberately pollute an area and run tests on the ecosystem, would not be feasible for a university which would have to cut through a lot of bureaucratic red tape to do something like that.

Unfortunately this has fallen on deaf ears. The MP for Kenora, Conservative Greg Rickford claims he used to “brag” about the ELA but apparently the affection he once felt is gone now. He also echoed the sentiment that a university should take over the research at the ELA.

But even university departments are reacting with skepticism at this idea that a massive project like the ELA could be realistically continued by a university.

“The federal government is expecting universities to step up… It’s a very different kind of commitment to do the work that Experimental Lakes has done and continues to do. I’m not sure how we’re going to fill that void.” – John Gunn,  Director of the Vale Living with Lakes Centre at Laurentian University in Sudbury. (empathasis mine)

Okay, so this all sounds fine but I bet your saying “listen, I’m all for science but we need to be careful with money right now right? We can’t afford to go spending billions on lake science.” The annual budget for the ELA is 2 million.

To compare, the cost per year of the Harper governments new fleet of fighter jets is about 1.2 billion.

Note, the ELA apparently does tours of their facility. If you’re in the area I suggest you give them a shout and see about seeing what they do there first hand while you still can.

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One Response to “It’s a Bad Time to be a Scientist in Canada”

  1. Mark White said

    Step 2: “Canadian government concludes there’s no evidence available to support global climate change, mass extinction, glacial shrinkage, etc.”

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