Scientists protest federal cuts to water research

Vancouver Sun
By Margaret Munro
June 6, 2012

Opposition to federal science cuts is getting louder, with top researchers and academics urging the Harper government to rescind curbs on basic research and its plan to close a unique experimental lakes facility.

An open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the environment and fisheries ministers was released Tues-day, denouncing the decision to stop funding the Experimental Lakes Area, a celebrated federal research facility in northwestern Ontario which was instrumental in banning phosphorus in deter-gents and stopping acid rain.

Meanwhile, Steve Perry, the dean of science at the University of Ottawa, has fired off a letter to Harper and several cabinet ministers decrying recent cuts to discovery-based science programs.

Perry urged the government to rescind “drastic” reductions in student scholarships, the cancellation of a program that provides scientists with research equipment, and a moratorium on unique Canadian research facilities.

He warns the cuts are a “perfect storm” that will jeopardize Canada’s international reputation and competitive edge.

An international storm is raging over the decision at the department and fisheries and oceans [DFO] in May to stop funding the Experimental Lakes Area next April.

“There is no other comparable facility in the world,” says Tuesday’s letter from eight top water scientists from Canada, the U.S. and Britain.

Scientists from Harvard to former executives of Manitoba Hydro have also voiced concern about the closure and more than 2,000 people in 50 countries have signed an online petition to save the facility that includes 58 small, remote lakes near Kenora.

At a briefing Tuesday to release the letter at the University of Alberta, scientists challenged the government’s assertion the facility no longer fits in with priorities at DFO and could be taken over and maintained by universities.

“It’s not something universities in Canada can afford,” says David Schindler, an acclaimed researcher at the University of Alberta. He led many of bold experiments that put the experimental lakes on the international map.

Schindler said it is “utter non-sense” to suggest the station is no longer fits with DFO’s man-date, which includes protecting the country’s fish and water.

Research done on the lakes helped ban phosphorus in detergents and stop acid rain. Continuing international experiments are exploring how the heavy metal mercury moves through ecosystems, and what happens in a lake polluted by nanosilver, the increasingly popular antimicrobial agent found in everything from household cleaning sponges to socks and even children’s teddy bears.

Schindler and his colleagues said the lakes would also be an ideal location to study the long-term affects of oilsands development on fresh water systems.

They said they are speaking out as the federal scientists who run the station and are not allowed to discuss the cut publicly.

The letter says the closure of the experimental lakes facilities – which costs about $2 million a year to operate and staff – is one of many recent cuts to federal environmental programming “that undermine our capacity to protect and man-age Canada’s freshwater and marine resources.”

Schindler said Canadian universities are in no position to take over the station as money for research is increasingly scare. Recent cuts to basic science pro-grams at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canada’s prime funder of university science, have riled many researchers.

Steve Perry, dean of science at the University of Ottawa, told Harper the recent developments at NSERC “represent a ‘perfect storm’ of program changes and cancellations that will jeopardize Canada’s inter-national reputation and competitive edge as well as Canada’s ability to respond to present and future challenges.”

Perry noted the NSERC cuts “are in opposition to the stated priorities of the Government of Canada to foster knowledge and innovation.”

Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science, was not available to comment on the cuts at NSERC.

And there was no sign of the government changing course on the experimental lakes.

“The minister understands that science is the backbone of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the freshwater research con-ducted at other sites across the country will satisfy the current needs of the department,” said Erin Filliter, director of communications for Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said by email.

NDP MP Pat Martin said at a news conference on Parliament Hill the decision to eliminate federal funding for the experimental lakes is a “stupid” affront to the international scientific community’s efforts to preserve the world’s most precious resource.

“I think the government is probably surprised at the amount of international push back because they very care-fully muzzled these scientists [at the station] so that they couldn’t complain about having their throat cut and the rug pulled out from underneath them,” Martin said.

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