Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Attacks on Tories simply science fiction

Governments of all stripes cut lake research

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It would be hard to find a more absurd scenario.

Hot on the heels of a decision to cut funding to the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a unique chain of lakes in northwestern Ontario that has served as a living test tube for aquatic research for 40 years, the federal Conservative government awarded $18 million in funding to clean up Lake Winnipeg.

It's not correct to say the left hand of the Tory government did not know what the right hand was doing. It knows exactly what it's doing and, remarkably, does not see a conflict. This is a government that, by its own admission, is all about hard choices as it attempts to trim a budget deficit solely through expenditure control. If that means it has to award funding to one environmental project while cutting funding to another project that produces the science needed to help the first project, so be it.

The Tories have been assailed for the lack of logic in this decision. Lake Winnipeg continues to suffer from suffocating algal blooms caused by a buildup of nutrients, the exact cause of and solution for which are still being debated. The ELA, celebrated worldwide as one of the most imaginative, visionary environmental programs ever created, is one of the leading sources of science that could ultimately guide the cleanup of the lake.

The Tories do not dispute the value of the ELA; in fact, they are counting on the fact that it is so valued by academics and agencies around the world that one or more of them will find money to keep the research going. It's a common strategy for the Tories -- cut loose something they don't want to fund, and dare its supporters to save it.

It's not exactly tough love, because it's unclear the Tories ever loved the ELA. However, to be fair to the Conservatives, the ELA has never been truly appreciated by any government.

Back in 1991, federal auditor general Denis Desautels sounded a warning that budget cuts by the then-Conservative government were threatening the viability of the ELA and putting its renowned research activities "in doubt." In 1996, the Liberal government, possessed by a need to slay the deficit, asked the Fisheries and Oceans Department to cut nearly $500 million from its budget. Among the victims of this edict was -- you guessed it -- the ELA. Liberal cuts reduced staff at the facility by nearly two-thirds and although it did not kill the program, it certainly limited the work it was able to do.

"This is programmed extinction," one of the senior ELA scientists complained at the time. "Eventually, there will be so little activity (at the institute) that no one will miss it when it disappears."

The ugly fact of the matter is Ottawa -- no matter the colour of the current government -- has never truly appreciated scientific research of any kind. Although governments of the day celebrate research funding increases when they come, those in the scientific community understand Canada has a long history of bait and switch: Funding is increased in one area and cut in another, or funding is boosted for one agency, only to see it cut again in the next budget. In a discipline where the chain of scientific evidence requires consistent, sustained and focused attention, this yo-yo approach to funding is almost worse than no funding at all.

It has also turned many of Canada's most celebrated scientists into office administrative assistants. They are forced to put down their test tubes and microscopes for long stretches to fill out endless paperwork for third-party grant applications. When Canada loses a top scientific mind to the United States or Europe, lamentably still a common trend, it is usually to take advantage of long-term, consistent funding that is not part of the Canadian tradition.

The ELA has demonstrated that no political party in this country that has had the honour of governing is a true friend of scientific research. Imagine the smirks on the faces of scientists at the ELA offices in Winnipeg when Liberals across Canada, including former prime minister Paul Martin and outgoing provincial Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard, railed against the most recent Tory funding cuts.

Many Manitobans may have forgotten Martin was the finance minister and Gerrard was the junior minister for science and technology in the Liberal government that eviscerated ELA funding in the mid-1990s. The ELA scientists surely did not forget, and now find cold comfort in the fact that among their major "supporters" are men who contributed to the legacy of funding cuts at ELA.

Scientists, by their very nature, have long memories. They need to, so evidence collected over years or decades will at some point form the pattern that leads to a "eureka" moment. Politicians, on the other hand, eschew institutional memory. Remembering the full details of the funding cuts your government handed down can only limit the amount of howling you can perform when someone else's government does the same thing.

The decision by the Conservative government to cut off the ELA is reprehensible on many different levels. It is also, lamentably, completely consistent with Canada's deplorable indifference to government-funded scientific research.

The loss of the ELA is a tragedy. Even worse is the realization that world-changing, life-altering science has no friends in Ottawa.

 

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 8, 2012 A6

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