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Last-ditch attempt to sustain ELA fails

Scientific research on lakes set to close March 31

Posted: 03/21/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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OTTAWA -- The official Opposition pushed the Tories Wednesday to extend funding for the Experimental Lakes Area at least until a new operator can be found -- and failed.

NDP critic Kennedy Stewart said the federal government must allow scientists to openly discuss their findings with colleagues and the public and should maintain support for basic science, including the Kenora-area ELA, until it can find someone to take over the program.

"The whole point of this is to try and get a small amount of money to save a living laboratory," said Stewart.

The motion was defeated 157 votes to 137, with Conservatives voting against it.

The Experimental Lakes Area is a network of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario used for the last four decades as an outdoor laboratory for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The program and its scientists are based in Winnipeg.

The lakes allow research on acid rain, mercury, phosphates and other pollution.

Scientists from around the globe have lauded it as an irreplaceable facility that has led to public policy to help protect freshwater bodies.

But as of March 31, Ottawa no longer plans to fund it, yanking its $2 million in annual funding and saying it no longer works with the government's core mandate.

Stewart said Ottawa could keep the ELA open for research for a fraction of the $2 million if it really wants to. He said the government won't because it doesn't like science it can't control or might get in the way of its resource expansion.

Stewart said Wednesday pulling funding from the ELA is another sign of the government's dislike of science. He points to a Statistics Canada report that shows Canada's spending on science and technology is down six per cent overall, and now accounts for about 1.8 per cent of GDP, down from two per cent a decade ago.

"It doesn't sound like a lot, but 0.2 per cent of GDP is a lot of money," said Stewart. "It's not just ELA closing, it's labs right across Canada."

Science and Technology Minister Gary Goodyear accused Stewart of "twisting" the facts to suit his own purpose. Though he didn't directly dispute the Statistics Canada figures quoted by Stewart, he said they don't take into account the fact a $2-billion infrastructure fund for capital improvements at universities was a one-time-only fund that has since ended. Goodyear said the Tories are spending more on science and technology than any previous government.

It is not clear what will happen to the ELA or the scientists who work there. The government is said to be negotiating with the International Institute for Sustainable Development to take over the operations.

It appears no research will be done on the lakes this summer, meaning current experiments will either be postponed or cancelled and scientists from other programs won't have access to the facilities. The 17 scientists and other workers employed by the DFO under the ELA program have yet to be told what will happen to their jobs.

Canada's agreement with Ontario, which owns the lakes, to run the ELA expires in September. The agreement requires Canada to return the lakes to their original state if they end the program, a cost estimated to be between $20 million and $50 million.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2013 A5

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