General · 18th April 2013
The decision by Canada's federal government to close the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a unique and world-class research region in Northern Ontario, fits a sobering pattern. Canadian scientists, employed with public funds, have been muzzled and are unable to speak openly to the media without prior approval of the government's Privy Council. Then their messages are often controlled, sometimes even interpreted so the findings are not politically awkward. Federal environmental regulations have been relaxed en masse.
The ELA is the only known place in the world where special ecological experiments can be conducted. The lakes, isolated from the contaminating effects of civilization and from each other, offer the rare conditions where single variables can be introduced under controlled conditions to examine specifically what happens when one environmental factor is changed. Critically important data that has been accumulating over 45 years of experimentation could be rendered useless for further scientific knowledge if the ELA is closed.
The comment of Dr. Carol Kelly, a Canadian scientist who has been doing research at the ELA since 1978, is typical of those made by her colleagues from around the world who are stunned and incredulous at the shortsightedness of closing such a remarkable site. “With the closing of the Experimental Lakes Area, there is about to be the loss not only of the specific and unique experiments going on right now, but also the ability of Canadian science to provide the kind of clear, unambiguous results that only a whole lake experiment can give. When you work in uncontrolled lakes, near towns, there are so many things happening at once that it's hard to say which factor is responsible for what you see, and uncertainty doesn't lead to sound policy. At the ELA, we change one thing at a time, such as phosphorus input, or mercury input, and we see how the whole ecosystem responds. This brings certainty to environmental policy formulation that no other approach can provide” (Globe and Mail, March 20/13).
The possibility of losing this critically important certainty perplexes scientists, who believe — like most people — that environmental policies should be founded on evidence rather than ideology. Profoundly expensive mistakes can be avoided or made depending on the availability of the solid scientific evidence. Phosphates provides a classical example. Corporations manufacturing detergents argued that the unusual algae blooms occurring in lakes and other fresh water bodies were the result of carbon rather than the phosphorus they were using in their products. A simple experiment at the ELA resolved the dispute. Carbon was added to one isolated lake; phosphorus was added to the second adjoining one. The effects of carbon were negligible; the phosphorus was discovered to be a fertilizer that promoted algae growth, generated toxicity and created anoxic conditions that killed fish. This experiment reformed the detergent industry, revolutionized the manner in which waste water is treated, changed how fertilizers are used in farming, and saved the world at least a trillion dollars in remedial costs according to one scientist's estimate. After 45 years, the experiment continues to refine the ecological effects of phosphates in freshwater systems.
Many other experiments at the ELA are in progress. One is examining the effects of iron in fresh water — iron-rich lakes are inexplicably more vital than iron-poor lakes. A study of nitrogen is critical to understanding the consequences of disrupting the global nitrogen cycle, one of the biosphere's most important. Vital studies of mercury contamination are measuring the impact of burning coal — mercury is a major neurological toxin released in emissions. Another study is assessing the impact on fish as global climate change reduces the inflow of water to lakes and raises water temperature. A new study is trying to determine the effects on ecosystems of silver nanoparticles that are increasingly being used as a bactericide in hundreds of consumer products. Because such tightly controlled experiments cannot be conducted elsewhere, the information gathered by all this crucially important research comes to an end if the ELA is closed.
The Canadian government is arguing that the $2 million in savings per year is necessary economy — scientists contend that the actual savings are about $600,000, a mere pittance considering the value of the information in shaping wise environmental policies. Continued research at the ELA could save billions of dollars — and perhaps trillions — by avoiding ecological and health catastrophes in Canada and around the world.
The international scientific community is dumbfounded by the Canadian government's current treatment of science. The muzzling of colleagues, the withdrawal of crucial research funding, the relaxation of carefully constructed environmental regulations, and now the closing of the ELA can only lead to the conclusion that the official position of the government of Canada is anti-science, supposedly because experimental evidence may be in conflict with an ideological agenda. This country's scientists once held a prestigious position as respected and valuable contributors to world science. They are now objects of sympathy as they try to maintain their dignity and freedom in an atmosphere of abandonment and repression.
The cumulative effect is serious. The closing of the Experimental Lakes Area has become a symbol of Canada's collapsing scientific credibility and respectability. Scientists from other countries are showing a reluctance to work here for fear that constraints may limit their ability to conduct open and free research. A prestigious German research organization, the Helmholtz Centre, has ended its collaboration with the University of Alberta on tar sands environmental research because of fears that its reputation could be jeopardized by operating in such circumstances (Ibid.). American scientists are expressing the same concern.
German politicians and the German press have noted Canada's collapse from scientific credibility, not to mention its withdrawal from the legally binding Kyoto Protocol and, most recently, from a 192-nation organization that is trying to mitigate the humanitarian effects of desertification. German anger and frustration is palpable. Its press has published in headlines, “The Stench of Money: Canada's Environment Succumbs to Oil Sands” (Ibid.). And its leaders from all parties have undiplomatically condemned Canada's actions as “dishonest and cowardly”, and “a fatal flight from responsibility” (Ibid.). Other countries clearly take science and the environment far more seriously than Canada does. Indeed, without the intelligent guidance of unfettered science, Canada is set to make some extremely expensive mistakes.