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Politics Tories take heat in House on science policy, closing research station

A scientist gestures to a map of the Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora, Ont., on Nov. 1, 2012.

FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The federal Conservative government is under attack for muzzling its scientists and for closing major scientific facilities, including the world-renowned freshwater research station in Northern Ontario that will be shuttered at the end of this month.

During two hours of debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday, no government minister stood to defend the decision to shut down the Experimental Lakes Area, which for 45 years has been a leading source of international data about the effects of contaminants on fresh water.

Gary Goodyear, the Minister of State for Science and Technology, instead argued that the government has "increased science funding by an additional $8-billion." According to the government, that is the amount that federal investments in "science, technology and the growth of innovative firms" have increased since 2006.

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Supporting science and technology "has been a major priority of our government since coming to office," Mr. Goodyear told the House.

But opposition MPs were quick to point out that Canada spends less than other major developed countries, including the United States, on research and development as a percentage of GDP. And Kennedy Stewart, the New Democrat who represents Burnaby, B.C., said Statistics Canada figures show the amount spent by the government on science and technology has dropped by more than a billion dollars annually since 2010-11 – data that was disputed by Mr. Goodyear.

In a bid to embarrass the Conservatives, Mr. Stewart asked the House to affirm its commitment to the open exchange of scientific information and the maintenance of scientific capacity across Canada, including the funding of the ELA. Government MPs voted against Mr. Stewart's motion, sending it down to defeat.

But the criticism of the government's approach to science is mounting – and much of it has come from scientists and scientific journals in other countries.

In one recent incident, American oceanographer Andreas Muenchow, who was working with Canadian government scientists on Arctic research, refused to sign an agreement stating that he would not release any of his data without the government's permission.

The government was also slammed last year for sending its media monitors to keep an eye on Canadian scientists attending international conferences. Mr. Kennedy told the House: "There is a chill being created in Canada."

As for the ELA, the government will save $2-million a year by unloading the facility. But remediating the lakes and removing the buildings, which would be required if the ELA were closed, could cost tens of millions of dollars.

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Many opposition MPs presented petitions from Canadians on Wednesday asking the government to keep the research station operating – at least until a buyer can be found.

Kirsty Duncan, a Liberal MP from Toronto, pointed out that funding has also been cut to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, which has tracked climate change and ozone depletion in the High Arctic since 2005. With the closure of the ELA, "scientists suggest the Conservatives are trying to silence a source of inconvenient data," Ms. Duncan said.

Maggie Xenopoulos, a researcher at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., who found out this week that she would not be permitted to enter the ELA to continue a multi-year experiment on the effects of an emerging threat to fresh water, wrote to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) on Wednesday pleading to be allowed to continue her work.

"Our experimental work is not amenable to taking a year off from ELA, and this gap in our project would mean that we would have to start over," wrote Dr. Xenopolous, who pointed out that her group has received more than $800,000 in funding for its experiments at the ELA. "The DFO's decision to prevent science from happening at ELA will likely mean the end to our whole lake experiment."

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