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Diane Orihel, a scientist and founding director of the Coalition to Save ELA, is photographed beside one of the many lakes in the Experimental Lakes Area on Nov. 1.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The federal Conservative government is attempting to negotiate the transfer of a renowned freshwater research facility in Northern Ontario to a Winnipeg-based international institute, sources familiar with the discussions say.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been heavily criticized for its decision to sell the Experimental Lakes Area, a one-of-a-kind natural laboratory consisting of 58 small lakes and their drainage areas which, for 44 years, has been helping solve critical water problems like acid rain.

Scientists told The Globe and Mail on Thursday that talks are being conducted between the federal government and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, which was founded in 1988 to advance sustainable development at the United Nations.

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The scientists, who asked not to be identified, said they do not know how far the negotiations with the IISD have progressed but they are unaware of any other organization engaged in similar discussions.

The Fisheries department, which says the ELA no longer falls within its mandate, has made it clear that the research station will be closed in March if a buyer cannot be found. Scientists who have worked there are distraught that it could be shut down.

Many of them believe the government objects to the fact that the ELA is studying issues like climate change, which do not fit with the Conservatives' push to develop the oil sands. They say the outcry over the planned closure has sent the government on a desperate search to find another institution to take it over.

To them, the IISD is not a good option. The highly respected institute is funded by the UN, governments, international organizations and philanthropic foundations. It also gets money from universities and private-sector companies including Suncor, TransCanada Energy, Enbridge and Manitoba Hydro. But that's not what most worries John Rudd, the former chief scientist at the ELA, and his wife, Carol Kelly, a retired professor who worked there most of her career.

Dr. Kelly said environmental research is especially susceptible to the accusation that results are being skewed one way or the other. The IISD develops policy, she said, "and that's not the same thing as doing unbiased science where the results are just the results."

If the people who now work at the ELA continue to work there, the science would be pure, Dr. Rudd said. But "not only do you have to be clean," he said, "you've got to appear to be clean."

Neither the government nor the IISD would confirm Thursday that the talks are taking place. "We continue to discuss the transfer of the facility," Erin Filliter, a spokeswoman for acting Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, said in an e-mail. "But because those discussions are ongoing, we cannot provide additional details."

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Ottawa would save $2-million a year by unloading the ELA. But closing the facility entirely could cost tens of millions of dollars because of an agreement with the Ontario government that all of the lakes that have been the testing grounds for experiments would be remediated to their original pristine condition.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was a member of the institute's board for nine years and says it has done some of the best research in the world on subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

But while the amount that it costs the Fisheries Department to run the research station every year is a pittance for the government, she said, it would be a very expensive proposition for the institute to take on and do properly. And Ms. May said she would worry that the institute could get into a situation where, due to financial pressures, it would agree to conduct research for a private interest, like an oil company, and keep the results private.

Dr. Rudd said preventing the findings of experiments from being made public is something that has never happened before "and it would be abhorrent to me."

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