Canada's renowned Experimental Lakes Area was given a breath of life Wednesday. Ontario's premier, Kathleen Wynne, surprised various parties involved in negotiations by announcing her administration would put money into keeping the unique whole-ecosystem research centre east of Kenora alive. Now it's Manitoba's turn to step up.
Last May, the Harper government shocked the science community when it gave notice it was withdrawing its funding to and interest in ELA, to save a mere $2 million in operating costs. Negotiations with the International Institute for Sustainable Development began late last year. But Ontario plays a central role in the ELA's survival as the research site consists of 58 lakes nestled in northwestern Ontario's Canadian Shield. A transfer of ownership pivots on resolving environmental liability, including potentially expensive costs of cleanup of accidental contamination and also the decommissioning should the site shut down, which would require returning to original state the lakes used for multi-year experiments. Ms. Wynne's statement that her government, in negotiations with the federal Tories, is going to keep ELA alive gives hope the issue of liability is not a stumbling block.
The IISD is poised to become operator, and employer of ELA staff, which now sits at 17, mostly salaried scientific staff. Many of the studies are also funded by public research grants.
The spinoffs from the science conducted since 1968 at the ELA have been shared globally. Manitoba, however, has especially benefited from the financial and marquee value of being home to the headquarters of both the ELA and IISD. The NDP government has refused to date to take a share of the $2-million operating costs, allowing Ontario to play the heavy in pressuring the federal government to keep funding operations.
Early comments out of the Selinger government were not encouraging, focusing on specific research programs with the IISD that could be mutually beneficial to the ELA and Manitoba, such as advancing the province's bid to see its vast east-side wilderness recognized as a world heritage site.
The Harper government has to date proved discouragingly resilient to pointed national and global criticism of its decision to cut off funding and shutter the ELA if a new owner is not found. Maybe it will agree to continue paying salaries of some scientists, but it has not budged on its original plans.
The IISD, under the new and roundly applauded leadership of Scott Vaughan, the former federal environmental commissioner, has pledged that the institute would keep the ELA's research independent, autonomous and focused on environmental protection. There is a good case, however, to be made that the precious trove of data has commercial potential. Until now, few knew the data were widely available, freely public.
It should remain so for public, scientific interests. But it could also be marketed to private interests, delivering short-term financial gains for reinvestment. That, however, cannot be central to the ELA's financing. It needs the long-term, dedicated funding that comes from public interest and public money. Manitoba has been an obvious beneficiary of the research centre's 45 years of work. It must join with Ontario to ensure the ELA has long-term public financing it needs not to just survive, but thrive.