Update: Experimental Lakes Area saved by last-minute deal between Ontario and the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development
Canada’s cutting-edge freshwater research facility was among the casualties of the federal government’s attack on science and research.
Established in 1968, the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) has served as the world’s only outdoor, whole-ecosystem laboratory devoted to freshwater research. Work done by thousands of scientists over the years has contributed to Canada’s and the world’s understanding of acid rain, greenhouse gases, mercury pollution, and algal blooms. The ELA has been awarded numerous prestigious international research awards.
In short, the ELA enabled scientists to do irreplaceable public research on water quality, safe drinking water and the health of fish populations.
Part of ELA’s importance is its accumulated 45 years of uninterrupted environmental data that serves as the foundation for countless research projects around the world. Just as important, this dataset helps predict how climate change may impact our lakes.
On May 17 2012, the Government of Canada announced it would was ending its funding of the ELA. Government scientists were reportedly muzzled from speaking out against the closure.
At the end of March 2013, federal funds to the research facility ran out. Four Trent University researchers, who hold an $800,000 NSERC grant related to the ELA, were barred from the research site, losing access to their research facility and compromising their scientific work.
ELA’s closure would have meant that cutting-edge freshwater research projects would have ceased, and the continuance of irreplaceable data would be lost. Repercussions of this short-sighted decision were noticed around the world. Supporters of the Experimental Lakes Area called the lack of federal government support an “international disgrace,” “short-sighted,” and “palpable nonsense.”
As part of the growing resistance to the government decision to stop funding the site, a coalition of scientists, academics, and concerned citizens rallied to “Save ELA”. In July 2012, thousands of scientists marched on Parliament Hill, in part, demanding a reversal of this decision. Despite widespread outcry, the government did not budge on its decision to close this vital research centre.
As a result of financial commitments from the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba, the federal government entered into a one-year interim agreement that allowed the ELA to operate at a bare-minimum basis when its funding ran out in March 2013. Just hours before this agreement was set to expire and the ELA to permanently close, a deal was reached that will see the ELA supported in the long-term. The Government of Ontario has pledged $2 million to the ELA, and Manitoba will contribute $900,000 through the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a non-profit institute based in Winnipeg that focuses on sustainable development policy. For its part, the federal government has agreed to give the ELA land, previously owned by the DFO, to Ontario, and to transfer ELA operations from DFO to the Institute. This will allow ELA scientists to focus on a broader range of questions, rather than only those that fall within the narrow mandate of the DFO.
While this is good news, it comes at a cost. Much of the research at the ELA had been longitudinal, and because this research could not continue during the interim agreement, there will be a gap in the data that can never be patched. In addition, many of the internationally-recognized scientists who had worked at the ELA have moved on, due to the uncertainty since the government’s 2012 announcement. The ELA will have to first rebuild its team before it can resume the bulk of its work. Further, the institute has been clear that it cannot burden all of the financial responsibilities associated with the ELA and has had to turn to crowdfunding to raise funds. Meanwhile, the federal government is refusing to take on the liability of the ELA (estimated to be between $50-$60 million) which would be needed in the eventuality of the facility closing and returning the site to its original condition.