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Federal research facility urged to attend to bottom line

A federal research centre in Northern Ontario has been told to operate more like a business than a charity, which may mean the end of free accommodation for the relatives of scientists.

The $13-million Experimental Lakes Area research facility loses too much money each year and does research not primarily of benefit to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which owns it, says an audit.

"DFO salary dollars are being spent on non-DFO research activities and priorities," auditors found.

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The department needs to focus the research, charge higher user fees for scientists and consider ending the free ride for scientists' families, says the document, dated September and obtained under the Access to Information Act.

The facility, founded in 1968, includes 58 small lakes in the dense bush southeast of Kenora, which is used as a vast outdoor laboratory to study acid rain and other environmental issues. Development in the area is strictly controlled through an agreement between Ottawa and the Ontario government.

World-class research at the facility has included a demonstration of the harmful effects of phosphorus, which led to Canada's pioneering ban of the chemical from laundry detergents.

But the recent audit found that some modern science projects carried out at the facility don't readily fit into the goals of the Fisheries and Oceans Department.

Also, visiting scientists are charged as little as $50 a day for food, accommodation, transport and access to equipment, when the true costs are at least $119 a day, without even accounting for capital costs.

"The process for charging and collecting per diems is informal, inefficient and not consistently applied," the document says.

And for years the department has allowed family members of visiting scientists to stay free, using the facilities and equipment. The long-standing policy, designed to encourage researchers to stay longer, exposes the department to liability if spouses or children are injured in the isolated area.

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"In addition, sleeping accommodations being used by family members could be used by other researchers requiring space at the facility," the audit says.

The auditors also recommended charging Environment Canada much more for a meteorological station that Fisheries and Oceans operates at the site. Since 1991, the department has billed Environment Canada $7,500 annually when the true cost is at least $35,000.

The auditors say the department should also consider contracting out management of the facility to a private firm, or joining a research consortium to spread costs.

Fisheries and Oceans puts about $1-million annually into the facility, or about three-quarters of all research costs, although the department will need to invest heavily in the next few years to improve housing, communications and drinking-water facilities.

The facility runs a deficit of about $77,000 each year on its field station operations alone.

A spokesman for the department welcomed the audit findings.

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"We knew we were having trouble with budgets," said Victor Cairns, acting regional director for science in the department's central and Arctic division.

"The bottom line is the ELA [Experimental Lakes Area]has to pay for itself. . . . We can't continue to operate at a deficit."

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