Science advocates won a hard fought battle with the announcement Monday that the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area is getting a new lease on life. The government of Canada is handing over its freshwater research centre to an international policy think tank for sustainable development. Although this is being heralded as a victory, the move may be a double-edged sword.
The ELA had been a federally run facility staffed by government scientists, but Fisheries and Oceans Canada eliminated the ELA program after the Harper government’s omnibus budget bill in spring of 2012 cut the department’s funding for freshwater research. DFO planned to close down the research station and handed pink slips to the ELA science team.
Realizing what was at stake, Canadian scientists and concerned citizens sprang into action, launching a national campaign to save the 58 study lakes and field station in northwestern Ontario. Not expecting such a strong public backlash, the government quickly changed its story. Suddenly, the goal became to transfer the ELA to a new operator, because DFO no longer needed the program. Fortunately, the International Institute for Sustainable Development could see the enormous value of ELA to Canadians, and took on the difficult task of negotiating with DFO to transfer the ELA to its jurisdiction.
Today’s news that the IISD will reopen the ELA comes as a tremendous relief to the scientific community. The whole lake experiments possible at the ELA have provided compelling scientific information not only how human activities affect lakes and fish populations, but what also can be done to reduce these impacts to protect and conserve Canada’s valuable freshwater resources. Research conducted at the ELA has been instrumental to understanding the impacts of acid rain, algal blooms, climate change, and aquaculture, as well as emerging contaminants like mercury, flame retardants, and nanomaterials. ELA research has underpinned sound policy decisions not only in Canada, but in North America and Europe. The ELA has also amassed Canada’s longest running monitoring record, clearly showing the cumulative effects of human activity on the climate, waters and watersheds of the boreal forest.
This is potentially an exciting new chapter in the history of the ELA. Inhibited by years of abuse and neglect under successive federal governments, the ELA could finally realize its great potential. No longer burdened by the restrictions of departmental mandates, a scientifically illiterate top-heavy bureaucracy, and oppressive communication policies, ELA scientists may find a new freedom under the IISD to branch out to new exciting avenues of research, explore controversial questions, and enjoy speaking freely to the public about their scientific findings.
But, it may not be a smooth ride for the ELA in the years to come. The first hurdle will be to rebuild the project’s world-class, but now defunct science team. Then, money to fund scientific experiments must be found. ELA scientists will no longer be able to compete directly for government funds. Nor will they be able to directly apply to NSERC, the body which funds research at universities. Without on-going federal funding for basic operation, it will be a struggle to keep the ELA financially afloat in the long-term.
The most worrisome issue for the future of Canada’s freshwater ecosystems is not at the blossoming IISD, but in the empty offices at DFO’s Freshwater Institute. They were once occupied by highly skilled scientists who conducted the powerful ecosystem science required to support the department’s mandate to protect and manage Canada’s water resources. The brilliant minds who guided the federal government in making smart decisions on fisheries management and protection of aquatic ecosystem protection are now gone. The Harper government has decided that its environmental policies no longer require the guidance of science, indeed all the signs are that science is unwelcome.
Diane Orihel, PhD is a freshwater scientist who has conducted research on aquatic contaminants at the ELA for the last 12 years.
David Schindler, OC, AOE, FRSC, FRS is one of the world’s leading freshwater ecologists and was the founding director of the ELA.