News — 22 May 2012

Researchers calling ELA closure a reckless blunder

By Lindsey Enns

Due to federal budget cuts to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans programs, the Harper government announced Thursday morning that they will be shutting down world renowned freshwater research facility, The Experimental Lakes Area. The move has shocked researchers and scientists across Canada.

David Schindler, a Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta, has directed operations at ELA for 22 years and has continued to conduct research there with the help of grad students from various Canadian universities. Some of his ongoing nutrient experiments over the years have helped save taxpayers millions of dollars and he was shocked to learn that this facility will soon no longer be available to researchers and scientists around the world.

“Scientifically speaking this is the biggest blunder they’ve made so far,” Schindler said. “This is the only place that policy relevant research can be done.”

The ELA is a collection of 58 lakes near Kenora, which have been set aside and managed by the Canadian and Ontario governments for research purposes. This area has been used for scientific research since 1968 and has gone on to become the site of worldly known scientific breakthroughs pertaining to the impact of human activities on our rivers and lakes. The news came as a surprise as federal lawmakers continue to debate over a budget bill that eases the protection of fish and wildlife and disregards environmental agencies like the ELA.

For decades this area has been relatively unaffected by human influences and industrial activities making it a perfect natural laboratory for the study of physical, chemical and biological processes. Over the years industrial activity has consumed Canada making it nearly impossible to construct another facility as valuable as this one. In 1980 Schindler explained that they considered moving the facility elsewhere due to the threat of forest fires but that there were no other available sites, leaving him to doubt that there would be anything like it out there today.

“This site has demonstrated time after time that experimentation can’t be done properly if it is not done on an ecological scale,” Schindler said. “They clearly don’t realize what they’ve done.”

Randy Kamp, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, addressed the House of Commons on May 18 saying that will continue to support fresh water research across Canada.

“We’re looking forward to facilitating a transfer of this particular facility to a private organization,” Kamp said.

The Conservative government argues that universities and non-governmental organizations would now be better to carry out this sort of research. But Schindler questions where these institutions will get their funding from.

“This is the fourth or fifth time that they have wanted to close this facility down and this is always their defense,” Schindler said. “But universities can’t get the kind of money to fund projects like this.”

Schindler says that the ELA runs on a $600,000 annual operating budget, which excludes employee salaries. Staff was informed Thursday morning that they would receive affected letters, that no new experiments were to be initiated and that there would be no public announcement regarding ELA’s closing. Right now the ELA employs nearly 17 full time paid positions and collaborates with 115 students from 20 universities across Canada. But recently university involvement has declined due to operating and usage costs.

“Universities are expected to pay user fees,” Schindler said. “It has now got to the point that fewer universities can afford to use the facility and today researchers don’t get enough money to be able to do this kind of thing.”

The lack of funds available to researchers has now forced them into more laboratory scaled experimentation, something that Schindler says is just unrealistic.

“The attitude of our government is that research is an expensive luxury,” Schindler said. “Science to them is just a luxury.”

In recent years millions of dollars have been put into maintaining and upgrading the facility but Schindler still remembers what it was like during his earlier days spent there.

“We used to operate out of a bunch of trailers without insulation,” he said.

Now Schindler wonders why money was put into a facility just for it to be shut down.

“The government is smoking something and it isn’t tobacco,” he said.

Darlene Salter, a local naturist, is concerned that scientists will soon not be able to educate the public without going through politicians that have little to no scientific backgrounds.

“We’re not hearing and accessing the needed and essential information,” she said. “There will now be even less information as they withdrawal funds from these research faculties.”

Salter has visited the facility several times and worries what will happen to it once it’s shut down for good.

“It’s a beautiful facility and I feel it should be funded by our government,” Salter said. “But it is now being closed down because the information that is being provided to the government is not what they want to hear.” Kenora MP Greg Rickford could not be reached for comment on the matter.

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