MICHAEL HARRIS is an award-winning author, investigative journalist, and documentary filmmaker.
The Harper government knows and cares as much about science as it knows and cares about telling the truth.
That’s what the recent decision to close Canada’s world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) tells anyone who is paying attention.
It also tells us that Environment Minister Peter Kent would have been a great witness at the Scopes Monkey Trial – for the prosecution. We shouldn’t bother jetting this guy to Earth Summits like Rio + 20 just to have him pick up the latest Fossil Award. Put the airfare into the Bev Oda VIP Transportation and Orange Juice Fund and ask the international organizers to mail in our Booby Prize.
I offer these observations after taking a close look at the decision by the federal government to shutter the ELA, yet another deconstruction and downgrading of government science in Canada.
Even Harper acolytes with a picture of Dear Leader in their wallets next to the kids should have a problem with this one. How many independent information bearers does this government have to cut down before even the Harper Moonies start worrying about the Gulag? What does it tell you about someone when they’re always telling other people to keep their mouths shut or else? Isn’t that what Edward G. Robinson does in gangster movies?
Let’s begin at the beginning, or should I say the end? On May 17th of this year, there was an emergency meeting called at the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg. For those who have not been recently canned, these group terminations are as ritualistic as a firing squad. Before the killing shot, the boss reads from a prepared script. As soon as that script comes out, you can be pretty sure that the smell of toast in the room is your career going up in smoke.
At that meeting of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Central and Arctic Division, the person reading the script to 17 hapless employees of the ELA was Michelle Wheatley. The news stories will tell you that she is the Regional Director of Science. What the news stories will not tell you is that she was crying as she broke the news.
With good reason. Her message was as bleak as the first road that was blazed into the then embryonic ELA in the winter of 1968: The installation would be shut down by March 2013; everyone would receive “affected” letters (they did within 24 hours); no new research could be started; and scientists had to get their equipment out of the lakes, all 58 of them – and the labs as soon as possible.
And then, of course, there was the cone of silence that the prime minister expects everyone to wear like a dunce cap after they are “streamlined”. All employees were explicitly warned not to speak with the media. Instead, media requests had to be forwarded to what was risibly referred to as DFO Communications. That is the branch plant of the Ministry of Truth in the PMO that casts the appropriate lights and shadows over the facts for the government and still manages to sleep well at night. You know, the Ignorance is Strength/Freedom is Slavery crowd.
How far has the government been prepared to go to smother the facts surrounding the ELA? For starters, DFO declined all requests from the media to speak with scientists. Being an equal lack-of-opportunity employer, DFO also turned down all requests from its scientists to speak about their work to Canadians. Remember, these are the same people who sent “minders” with scientists to a recent scientific conference in Montreal, lest they stray from the government line in public. I am beginning to suspect that the government line is based on believing that 10,000 years ago Brontosaurs were cropping grass in the back forty.
You will be comforted to know that DFO extended the ban on ELA information to federal MPs. The department turned down MP Bruce Hyer’s request to visit ELA with an ELA scientist. When an outraged university scientist conducting research there offered to take Hyer – who was elected as an NDP MP but now sits as an independent – on a tour of the facility, DFO threatened to cancel his research privileges. Any wonder that acclaimed international scientist Ragnar Elmgren said that this was the kind of thing you would expect from the Taliban, not the government of a western democracy?
Yes, the Harper government decided that the end has come for one of the great scientific enterprises in Canadian history. Consider the record.
Forty-four years ago, a natural freshwater laboratory was created out of a pristine lake system in northwestern Ontario. It was an epical experiment. Although it was about fresh water, not the universe, it was a scientific enterprise of the magnitude of the Hubble Telescope. No other fresh water research station in the world could do what the ELA could in a “whole-environment” research setting. As David Schindler himself put it about the kind of work done at the ELA “This needs to be done in a controlled setting, not in the Athabaska garbage can.”
And what a lot was done.
When DFO itself was amongst the host of visionaries who couldn’t see acid rain, and politicians like Ronald Reagan were publicly questioning the scientific basis for the need to take action, it was the ELA under Schindler that worked to provide the irrefutable evidence that lakes were dying. The work went on from 1976 to 2004. As a result of the findings of Canadian scientists, the EPA in the U.S. took action and new international treaties were established.
The “Metallicus” experiment established a link between atmospheric mercury deposits and mercury in fish. That is a vitally important connection to understand given that 80 percent of the lakes listed in the Guide to Eating Ontario Sport Fish are currently under mercury consumption advisories. ELA research on this deadly neurotoxin and endocrine disruptor has been used by the EPA to design new regulations to control the atmospheric emissions of mercury from coal-fired plants.
Very often, it was the immense scale of the ELA’s outdoor lab that made crucial scientific breakthroughs possible.
That was the case in understanding excessive algal growth in lakes. Small scale studies suggested that carbon was responsible. ELA whole-lake experiments corrected that erroneous conclusion and identified phosphorous as the principle culprit. As a result, governments around the world now restrict phosphorous inputs into lakes. Several countries have banned outright the use of phosphorous in detergents.
Similarly, standard laboratory studies suggested that acidity was directly toxic to lake trout at a pH level of 5; whole-lake experimentation discovered that pH is indirectly toxic to lake trout at -6, or at a rate that is ten times less acidic than previously believed. Why? Because their food source, shrimp and minnows, disappear at the lower levels and the trout starve.
From investigating the role of nitrogen in promoting blue-green algae blooms to the environmental impacts of freshwater aquaculture, from the impacts of hydro reservoir development on greenhouse gases and mercury cycling, to the effects of artificial estrogen on fish populations, ELA has been there. Its scientists have been in the vanguard of original research that has benefitted companies, this country, and the world time after time after time. You don’t get the First Stockholm Water Prize and the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering for goofing off.
So why, unless you had a fetish for killing off Canadian success stories, would the government decide to close the ELA? Why would it leave incomplete original work on the effect of Nano-silver on lakes, (Canada has no specific policies for managing nano-materials in the environment) on growth and survival of fish that escape into the wild from aquaculture facilities, or climate impacts on lakes and their watersheds? None of that work will now be completed. Some innocent souls went to Manitoba Conservative MP Joyce Bateman for the answer, since the Freshwater Institute is in her backyard.
Sadly, there was enough space behind her wide, partisan eyes to park a double-decker bus. Bateman didn’t even know the operational budget for the ELA, and wasn’t aware of its internationally acclaimed work on acid rain, reservoir studies, and nuclear contaminant pathways. Yet she asserted erroneously the facility was no longer productive, parroting lines no doubt given to her by Fisheries minister Keith Ashfield. As Diane Orihel, a PHD candidate in science and the Central Canada Leader for the Coalition to Save ELA put it after her own meeting with Bateman, “I was shocked by her complete and utter ignorance of science and what we do.”
The Opposition didn’t fare much better trying to get answers from Environment Minister Peter Kent. He tried to justify this attack on science by pretending that he just wanted to move our scientists further west “to examine acidification of lakes in western Canada.” Sounds reasonable, right? But the stuff in Kent’s political teleprompter is more head static from mission control. Like his colleague from Manitoba, Kent is operating light years beyond his competence. The research he is talking about has already largely been done and you might be able to guess where – at the ELA.
Most of what the government needs to know about acid rain in the oil sands area was discovered in the early work by David Schindler in Ontario, and reinforced by the work of those who followed him. It is interesting to note that that the original work was funded by the Alberta Oil Sands Environmental Research Program. AOSERP funded the research precisely because the water chemistry of boreal shield lakes in Northern Saskatchewan and Alberta was very similar to the ELA lakes. In other words, the research data collected in northwestern Ontario is a moveable feast. You don’t have to move the scientists.
Not only that, but the minister didn’t understand that earlier ELA research doesn’t need to be replicated at another facility and is actually ready to be applied in the oil sands. That’s because during Schindler’s tenure, the ELA established the biological and chemical thresholds where acidification becomes problematic. The fact that we can now conduct responsible monitoring in the oil sands is a direct result of invaluable research done long ago in northwestern Ontario. The lion’s share of what governments have to do now is bring in responsible monitoring at the oil sands based on ELA research, not reinvent the wheel.
But Minister Kent did get one thing right when he was giving non-answers about this insupportable decision to kill the ELA to the Opposition in the House of Commons early in June. Under questioning from Lac-Saint-Louis Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia, Kent crowed that unlike the previous Liberal government, the Harper government isn’t just paying lip service to the environment. But why not use his own ringing words: “We are getting things done.”
And they are. But only if you count gutting the Fisheries Act, killing the ELA, cutting the Institut Maurice-Lamontagne (the only francophone research centre at Fisheries and Oceans), eliminating the water resources strategy group at Environment Canada, and ending groundwater modeling. Even Tory Kool-Aid drinkers would admit that this is an odd way to come up with a national water strategy.
The unkindest cut of all. The federal government talks glibly about finding another operator for the ELA, perhaps a university. Just sell them the millions of dollars worth of upgraded facilities for a dollar. There is only one problem. The major source of funding to Canadian universities that might have supported the ELA has itself been cancelled via the moratorium on NSERC Major Resources Support Program.
The death sentence the government has pronounced on the ELA has nothing to do with the reasons stated. Contrary to claims by people like Kent and Ashfield, the work of the ELA is aligned with departmental priorities in both Fisheries and Environment.
If the main priorities of DFO, for example, are: fish populations, community productivity, habitat and population linkages, climate change and variability, and ecosystem management, all of these are studied at ELA.
It is false to say there is a similar facility in the world, let alone in northern Saskatchewan. There is only one ELA.
It is false to use cost savings as the rationale for the cut. Most of the research cost of the ELA are not paid for by government.
The costs of the installation, divided between EC and DFO according to a 2007 Memorandum of Understanding, are embarrassingly modest – $2 million annually, including approximately $650K for operating costs and the balance in salaries.
And here is a truly shameful number. How much do you think each of the four ELA/DFO scientists receives annually to cover their research expenses? Two thousand bucks. Bottom line. Canadians pay ten times more for the PM’s security detail than they do for this world class science facility. They paid ten times more for the celebration of the War of 1812. For the price of a single F-35, ELA’s operational budget could be financed for the next 150 years.
That’s why there’s not a chance that the Harper government will take David Schindler up on a very reasonable request. If you are going to wipe out 44 years of work, spark a scientific diaspora from the federal government, and create a white elephant out in the wilderness that will cost untold millions to “remediate”, do the intelligent thing and conduct an audit this summer to see if the facts support that course of action.
The government won’t do that because it is all about putting independent voices out of business, voices that if heard might persuade the public that Harper doesn’t necessarily know best. The PM believes in strategic communication – the amassing of friendly facts and pseudo facts and big fat lies that advance a chosen agenda. His approach to governance is like a bad PhD thesis. Science is about applying empirical tests in controlled situations with predictive validity aimed at finding the facts. The two schools are natural enemies, as antithetical as William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.
Stephen Harper does not believe in funding any organization that might become a critic, even inadvertently, in pursuit of the facts. So he probably will look with favor on a suggestion by a Winnipeg-based money manager who has a plan to save the ELA.
Tim Burt is the chief executive officer of Cardinal Capital Management. He has written a letter to the heads of six oil companies asking that they assume the funding of the ELA previously provided by Ottawa. It turns out that he is also the riding association president for Winnipeg South Centre Conservative MP, one Joyce Bateman. Fortunately, Mr. Burt assures one and all that there is no political motive behind his suggestion.
Of course not, Tim. What could be political about handing over the funding for an independent scientific institution to the very private sector owners whose industries would be most affected by its investigations?
Now if only Suncor, Cenovus, and Imperial see the light.
Image Credit: PMO Image Gallery.