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Scientists who have performed experiments at Canada's world-renowned freshwater research station are being labelled "radical ideologues" by the Conservative riding association of federal science minister Greg Rickford.
Mr. Rickford, who was named Minister of State for Science and Technology in the cabinet shuffle last summer, also represents the Kenora riding where the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is located.
He has taken a bit of a beating from scientists since his government decided in 2012 to close – and then, in the face of scientific outcry, to transfer – the 44-year-old facility that has been the site of ground-breaking research into such things as the effects of phosphorus, mercury and acid rain on Canada's lakes.
Whole-lake ecosystem science in Canada effectively ended with that decision and the scientists are ticked.
Four of them wrote an editorial in the Toronto Star in July that decried Mr. Rickford's appointment to the science portfolio, saying he is a "politician with no science background and one who failed to support one of our country's most important public science programs in his own riding."
Anne Ayotte, the president of the Conservative riding association in Kenora, has since fired off a letter to her members saying the Star article was written by "radical ideologues who have lead (sic) a campaign of misinformation about Greg's work to protect the Experimental Lakes Area."
Ms. Ayotte, who did not return calls this week from The Globe and Mail, goes on to say "Greg works quietly and diligently, getting things done. That is how he worked to find the ELA a better home." She says "we can't let these attacks go unanswered" and asked for money to help fund a rebuttal.
So who are the radicals to whom Ms. Ayotte's letter referred?
One is John Rudd, a biochemist with a PhD whose name is on more than 85 peer-reviewed publications. One is Carol Kelly, a PhD with interests in biogeochemistry and who has taught microbiology at the University of Manitoba. One is Britt Hall, a PhD who teaches biology at the University of Regina. And one is Diane Orihel, who recently obtained her PhD in ecology and who has been leading the charge to keep the ELA open.
Dr. Orihel is mildly amused that her campaign to preserve the ELA has become the focus of Conservative fundraising efforts. She said she has never been a member of a political party and had never attended a protest of any sort until the research station was slated for closure.
Since the Conservative government pulled the plug on the facility, there have been some discussions about transferring it to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, based in Winnipeg. But those talks have been bogged down in debates over liability and other issues.
"The ELA has practically been destroyed," said Dr. Orihel. "Federal funding for the ELA has been eliminated. It is gone. Secondly, it is now illegal to conduct scientific experiments at ELA so the doors might be open but scientists can't do their science. And, thirdly, the ELA science team is completely divided, demoralized and falling part."
And Mr. Rickford, she said, has refused any request to explain his government's decision. "From the beginning," said Dr. Orihel, "his constituents have invited him to public meetings about the ELA, several town halls, multiple events. He has declined every single invitation to attend those events."
Kennedy Stewart, the science critic for the New Democrats, pointed out that Mr. Rickford voted against an NDP motion last March that would have extended funding to the ELA until a new operator is found.
Ted Hsu, the Liberal science critic, said Ms. Ayotte's letter has hurt Mr. Rickford's ability to handle his portfolio "because the minister needs to engage with scientists to do his job and here the riding association is attacking scientists …. to raise a few bucks."
When Mr. Rickford learned from Ms. Ayotte that The Globe was writing about the fundraising letter, he sent along the following statement.
"Our government is committed to science, technology and innovation. We have made significant investments in research to create jobs, economic growth and improve the quality of life of Canadians," he wrote.
"That is why Canada is ranked number one among G7 countries for our support for higher education research and development as a percentage of GDP. Furthermore, recent reports show that Canadian (science and technology) is healthy, growing and recognized around the world for its excellence, attracting world-renowned researchers to Canada and keeping home-grown talent right here."
Gloria Galloway is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.