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Sorry, Harper, it just doesn't wash Blog of the week: Anybody Want a Peanut?

It's tough to see closing Experimental Lakes Area as anything other than a 'war on science'

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In spite of my somewhat conservative leanings, I gotta say that I've been disappointed with a great many things that Stephen Harper and the federal Conservative government have done. There has been a whole slew of things -- from wasting money on misguided "stimulus" programs to their embarrassing response to Palestine's promotion to non-member observer state at the UN.

Some things are big. Some things are small. The closure of the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario near Kenora could be considered small. A below-the-radar operation that survived on a budget of less than a million dollars for most of it's existence, the ELA is a modest operation but has had a tremendous impact.

Some people will cite research done at the ELA as being a fundamental part of the effort to reduce acid rain in the 1980s. (Interestingly, this effort was led by another conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, proving that being environmentally friendly and right-of-centre are not mutually exclusive concepts.) This is a notable example, but at any given time dozens of research projects might be on the go, impacting many industries or aspects of life in some small way.

The closure of the ELA strikes me as a particularly harsh move, simply because it costs so little and it does so much. Of all the things that the government spends money on, this operation must be near the top in terms of bang for the buck.

Money is not wasted at the ELA. That, at least, is my experience. As a summer student one year, I spent some time there assisting with experiments and collecting lake-dwelling bugs for further study back at the lab. There was a communal eating area, small buildings with bunk beds, a sand volleyball court on the compound and not a whole lot more. Our showers in the morning were limited to five minutes. There was a schedule, so if your shower lasted much longer than five minutes, you risked having a naked biologist walking in on you.

The place was nerd central. Scientists from all over the place, dressed in cargo pants, would gather and chat about their respective projects over dinner, go to bed early, and wake up at ungodly hours to continue their research.

Most governments brag about supporting research. Besides directly providing science and technology-related jobs, research often leads to development and the additional jobs that go with that. Some research also leads to a better understanding of the world we live in, which in turn can lead to policy enhancements.

This is the primary objective of the ELA: a better understanding of how human activity impacts our environment, and this is why some people think the Conservative government has pulled the centre's funding. They portray this as a "war on science."

"The Harper government is gutting all and any tools, rules, and science projects that stand in the way of corporate abuse of our freshwater heritage," says Maude Barlow, national chairwoman of the Council of Canadians. "No ELA means that the damage done to water from extractive industries will forever be hidden."

The language I would use would be less inflammatory, but it's hard to argue against the notion that this is an ideological move by the government, because there are few other plausible explanations. The government's purported reason, saving money, doesn't wash when you consider how little money is being saved in relation to the value of the research being done and the uniqueness of the operation. At the very least, this speaks to how little the government values environmental research.

The ELA may live on. The government is not locking the doors and throwing away the key -- it is just locking the doors. There is a chance that the Ontario government (yeah, they have money to spend ...) or some other party may take over the funding of the facility, but until that happens there is to be no research done there -- even if the federal funding agreement is still in effect and research grants are in place.

This may not seem like an tremendously important issue for many people, but to me the closure of the ELA and the government's handling of it has a spiteful tone. This is not an isolated thing either: the end of the mandatory long form census is another similar issue. As somebody who had to merge longitudinal data sets for quantitative studies in university, I can appreciate the value of having consistent information, and the census change will cause more problems than you might imagine.

While individually these issues may be small and you may not care a great deal about them, they reflect poorly on the character of the government, and you should at least care about that.


Cherenkov writes at and guests on Winnipeg Internet Pundits on 101.5 UMFM.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 24, 2013 A10

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