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Thursday, June 7, 2012

ELA closure : a rescission of national scientific capacity?

National priorities and federal budgets require deep thought.  Quite often, rounds of "strategic" budget cuts correlate to the timeframes near elections where political power and philosophical beliefs have shifted.  This is usually done through the widely expected manouvres undertaken with the authority of a public mandate.  When the public mandate has provided the justification for budgetary cutbacks, what may be hidden behind the cloak of the public mandate is often left to quietly disappear from the political landscape.

Yet there are times when certain changes may not be in line with the public view of how the governmet should strategically proceed.  Such instances often emerge over programs or funding expectations for projects or undertakings that are viewed by strong interest groups to be quite important.  In addition, depending on the ability of the interest groups, their ability to convey this information to the public in a way that is easily understandable can create a tremendous support mechanism to preserve these special areas or projects.

As our federal government begins the process of making budgetary recissions, the cutbacks are generating loud complaints from across the public landscape.  The most recent cutback that seems to be generating global interest is the reduction in funding required to sustain the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA).  The petition to save the ELA is growing rapidly.  At quick glance, we see Doctors and Scientists from every Province and State plus 48 countries around the World, and it's only been up for a matter of days.

The ELA website has the following description of what it is all about:

The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) occupies a unique position, not only in Canada but in the world, as a dedicated research facility for ecosystem-scale experimental investigations and long-term monitoring of ecosystem processes (Anonymous 1990). Located in a sparsely inhabited region of southern Canada, the ELA is relatively unaffected by external human influences and industrial activities. As such, it serves as a natural laboratory for the study of physical, chemical and biological processes and interactions operating on an ecosystem spatial scale and a multi-year time scale.

The ELA includes 58 small lakes (1 to 84 ha) and their drainage basins, which have been set aside and are managed through a joint agreement between the Canadian and Ontario governments. Only research activities, or activities compatible with that research, are permitted within or adjacent to these watersheds. Data records from these watersheds began in 1967 and experimental studies began in 1969.

While the ELA is operated by the Central and Arctic Region of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) from its Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, Canada, research at this unique facility is jointly conducted by researchers from DFO and from a variety of partner organizations.

Besides being an incredible academic resource, a place where great research is nurtured and scientists are nurtured, the contributions to science have been many, the publications have been compelling.  Above all, it is the only place in the World where scientists can carry out "whole lake" experiements.  The impact of closing something like the ELA will be felt deeply in the Canadian academic community and it will send reverberations around the World.  Current research opportunities at the ELA include;

  • Strategies for combating harmful algal blooms
  • Regulation of air pollution to reduce acid rain
  • Designing reservoirs to minimize greenhouse gases
  • Effectiveness of proposed measures to lower mercury contamination in fish
  • Environmental impacts of aquaculture and escaped genetically-modified fish
  • Impacts of hormones present in sewage effluent on fish health
  • Evidence that flame retardants degrade into banned toxic chemicals
  • Toxicity of antimicrobial nanoparticles ─ commonly used in clothing ─ to aquatic life

Much of our national research agenda and tremendous facilities like ELA and the recently closed Polar Earth Atmospheric Research Laboraty (PEARL) can easily be sustained for decades to come by revisiting our funding commitment to basic scientific research.

The gain involved in retaining facilities and the academic research community for Canada are measurable in many ways besides immediate economic impact.  The considerations of national scientific capacity in the future cannot be disassociated from current budget changes.  Something worth thinking about.