"In the world of science, they are rock stars..."
March 16, 2013 10:58 AM   Subscribe

The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is a unique research facility in northern Ontario comprised of 58 lakes set aside by the Government of Canada in which entire lakes are used for experimental manipulation. ELA has effectively solved the problems of nutrient loading and acid rain in freshwater ecosystems. As well, it has produced top research on the effects of estrogen, climate change and methylmercury in freshwater. Current research includes the impacts of nanosilver, climate change, transgenic fish and flame retardants on aquatic ecosystems aquatic ecosystems. On March 31, 2013, The Harper Government will close the Experimental Lakes Area.

The closure is said to be due to the $2 million/year price tag. However, required remediation of the facility will cost approximately $25-$50 million.

Many prominent scientists do not agree with the decision, calling the closure a 'tragedy'.

Efforts are currently under way to Save ELA
posted by Midnight Rambler (32 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
But they've got $21 million to spare for ads about how awesome they are. This government sickens me.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:14 AM on March 16, 2013 [9 favorites]

Thanks for the cool post highlighting a really shitty thing!

As a freshwater biogeochemist, essentially all of the formative research in my field was done at the ELA. Why do we no longer have phosphates in detergents and their accompanying algal blooms in all of our lakes and rivers? Because of the ELA.

$2 million per year is basically nothing in research science terms. It's essentially the budget for many single-researcher labs at major research universities.

This is like the US shutting down Los Alamos or the JPL in terms of just eliminating a central resource in an important scientific field for no particular reason.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:26 AM on March 16, 2013 [11 favorites]

Harper shuts down as much science and research as he can because without science, you cannot argue effectively against his authoritative fiat. It is this thing, more than even his positions on important social matters, that disgust me the most.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:31 AM on March 16, 2013 [19 favorites]

I feel like most news stories I see from Canada lately are, "Check out this awesome thing! It has contributed a lot to society! Guess what! Harper's closing it!"

It's like he's trying to set himself up for a 2016 run for American president by proving he can destroy more public institutions and cut more government services than any Republican out there. Someone needs to tell him that when we call Canada "America's nicest national park," it's a JOKE, not a declaration of citizenship.

On the plus side, I've been seeing a lot more stories in the American press about cool institutions of Canadian society now that Harper's determined to dismantle the country and sell it for scrap.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:45 AM on March 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

Wow. I did not know about this. Thanks for posting it.

The ELA has done some really essential science, and there is nothing that can replace it. The whole pigheadedness of this is astounding.
posted by Tsuga at 11:51 AM on March 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is what happens when you elect politicians who have never made a secret of their contempt for the geographical area they aspire to govern. See also: Rob Ford.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:54 AM on March 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Great post on one of the most indefensibly reprehensible things the Harper government has done.

A little more context: last summer's "Death of Evidence" rally - which saw thousands of Canadian scientists, many in lab coats, march on Parliament Hill - was organized in part by the Save the ELA group. Here are transcripts of the speeches on the Hill that day - including one by Diane Orihel of Save the ELA.

The rally's organizers have now formed a group called Science Uncensored to keep scientists engaged in pushing back against the government's cuts to research and muzzling of government scientists.

I have it on very good authority that Greystone is publishing a book this fall on the ELA and the Harper government's general disdain for science called The War On Science. I'd (self-)link to the catalog page, but the publisher's still in the process of reorganizing after rising from the ashes of the Douglas & McIntyre bankruptcy.
posted by gompa at 12:18 PM on March 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

Stephen Harper is the most contemptible asshole to have ever disgraced the office of Prime Minister, and considering some of the other Tory PMs we've suffered through, that's really saying something.

Every night I say a little prayer to the universe that the next time that fucking traitor is jerking off over the tar sands, he trips and drowns in a tailings pond.
posted by sarastro at 1:06 PM on March 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

You may have noticed that the Right Honourable Prime Minister has become a real point of contention amongst those of us the Left.
posted by pmv at 1:16 PM on March 16, 2013

The Harper Government

So how's that rebranding working out for you?
posted by ODiV at 1:29 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, I hadn't heard of this. Thanks very much for bringing it to my attention. Great job on the post.
posted by ODiV at 1:35 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Underreported backstory: Last year, the federal and Alberta governments were embarrassed into creating an "oil sands water monitoring system" after researcher David Schindler published an exposé in Nature about pollution in the Athabasca watershed. David Schindler's other big career achievement: The ELA. I'm quite convinced this is spiteful payback.
posted by Popular Ethics at 2:07 PM on March 16, 2013 [22 favorites]

Jesus that is brilliant. Not that all of nature should be humanity's test lab, but Northern Ontario has a great many lakes to spare.

Fuck you Stephen Harper.
posted by dry white toast at 2:34 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Death of Evidence rally also had the best chant:

"What do we want?"
"When do we want it?"
posted by frimble at 2:35 PM on March 16, 2013 [10 favorites]

$2 million per year is basically nothing in research science terms.

It may be slightly unfair, but in recent years, every time I hear about the government saving a few million dollars here or there, I can't help but compare it to what they spent on the 2010 G20 summit. Which by the time you count everything was roughly a billion dollars. If whoever organised that thing had been less insane, they could've saved enough money for a few hundred years of experimenting on lakes. They never did apologise for that.
posted by sfenders at 3:12 PM on March 16, 2013 [10 favorites]

A little more context: last summer's "Death of Evidence" rally...

I thought about putting this in context of the scientific 'muzzling' and overall apparent war on science, but thought ELA in particular deserved a spotlight, thanks for the extra info though!

So how's that rebranding working out for you?

As much as I hate that rebranding, I really had no problem putting his name to this decision.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 4:38 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Death of Evidence rally also had the best chant

Also possibly the best protest placard of all time. It read, in its entirety:

"[citation needed]"
posted by gompa at 6:02 PM on March 16, 2013

I'm pretty sure it's the mercury bit that's what's getting the ELA closed. Mercury is extremely difficult to remove completely from coal stack emissions. Alberta is coal country, and Harper's campaign runs on it. Best not to know the harm that mercury can do by not measuring it, eh?

It saddens me to look at the Guide to Eating Ontario Sport Fish website, and see almost every lake in Northern Ontario having fish consumption limits due to mercury.
posted by scruss at 7:46 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

$2 million is chump change. No shit this is political payback for speaking out.
posted by benzenedream at 8:53 PM on March 16, 2013

The Harper Government and resource extraction companies don't want early evidence that people (citizens) and the environment are being harmed.

Third world resource extraction is big money. Screw us.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:58 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

What if a well-motivated benefactor stood up and offered to fund it privately? Surely there must be some intelligent, concerned people with interest in good science who have access to funds? It seems that it's in the interest of all of us to keep the ELA running. Also, if a funder or funding group came forward, it would force Harper to show his motivation for shutting it down, since he'd have to give permission for the area, which is on Crown Land, to be used. At least then we'd know that he's not motivated by the apparent tax savings. It would force him into a situation where he couldn't hide his bias against science behind an apparent drive for "fiscal restraint".

We canoe trip in the ELA every year (three times last year). Even though it's a "lab" many of the lakes remain clean enough for us to drink the water without filtering or using tablets. We're also concerned that once the ELA closes, the lakes will be further infiltrated (especially if the ELA camp area, which you can access by road, is made available for fishing lodge developers) by recreational fishers in powerboats, who are, quite frankly, a fucking blight on the environment out there.
posted by kneecapped at 10:47 PM on March 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks for this, a huge, important issue. I work with grad students and tried to compile all the cuts to research after Budget 2012 on my little student society blog. I am sure there is more, not to mention earlier cuts to women, some of it research as well... Not surprising our status dropped in the development index!
posted by chapps at 10:49 PM on March 16, 2013

Just wrote a letter to my MP supporting the ELA.
posted by talkingmuffin at 11:02 PM on March 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Man I hate these guys.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:15 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am an aquatic ecologist. One of my first jobs as a student scientist in 1968 was to do the baseline sampling and mapping of these lakes. My partner and I camped for weeks in a tent on the very location where the ELA buildings are now being demolished. As a practising ecologist for more than 40 years, I have used the results of research on this area in studies and reports I have done for industry and governments. When top research scientists from around the world tell you that the Experimental Lakes Area is a unique and irreplaceable facility, I can tell you from my own direct, longterm experience that they are not exaggerating.

The controlled experiment is not the only way to do effective science, but it is by far the most powerful tool in the box. And that tool works best when applied under conditions as similar as possible to the system you are trying to understand. The ELA provides just those conditions: dozens of lakes and their drainage basins in near-pristine condition. These whole ecosystems can be manipulated under controlled conditions to determine the impacts of all sorts of common contaminants and watershed changes on fresh waters. Whole-lake and whole-watershed experiments are far more effective than lab studies and even in-lake container studies for doing this kind of work.

Nowhere else in the world does this at such a scale. The ELA could possibly be emulated in a very few other places, at great cost, and over a period of about a half-century. But such a project is highly unlikely, and the opportunity to build directly on ELA's detailed, precise, 45-year massive dataset for so many lakes and watersheds will be lost, along with the prodigious investment of time and labour that went into building it.

The willful destruction of this facility by the Harper Government is comparable in the world of art to the destruction of a major public art gallery holding the best work of our finest painters and sculptors. It is comparable to demolishing Frank Lloyd Wright's greatest feats of architecture. Destroying the ELA is akin to burning down a major library that is the sole repository of specialized knowledge of a civilization. Opening Yellowstone National Park to open-pit mining would not be a greater travesty than shutting down the ELA.

Destroying the ELA is assuredly an act of vandalism motivated by spite and small-mindedness. But it is not being demolished out of ignorance. On the contrary, the Harper Government fully understands that it is eliminating a powerful source of independent knowledge. And that, they perceive, is apparently an enormous threat.
posted by dmayhood at 11:39 PM on March 16, 2013 [23 favorites]

There is a lake in North Ontario
With nutrient loading data to spare,
And in my lab
I still need a place to go,
All my studies were there.

Blue methylmercury behind the stars,
estrogen on the rise,
Transgenic fish flying across the sky,
Flame retardants on our eyes.
Leave us

Helpless, helpless, helpless
posted by freebird at 12:24 AM on March 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

> Third world resource extraction is big money

Canada is really just a third-world country run by MBAs. They keep braying about how fabulous their business skills are, but when you've got near infinite amounts of stuff to dig up and sell to the rest of the world, even halfwits could make a profit. We do very little refinement and sales of finished product here, and thus we're not a very developed economy.
posted by scruss at 7:18 AM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

The list of open letters already sent in protest is awe-inspiring.
posted by rhombus at 7:55 AM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm constantly in awe of the anti science stance of the Harper government. Science is the cure for all that ails us and they are just flushing it away at every opportunity.
posted by Mitheral at 8:10 AM on March 17, 2013

The ELA has been targeted before, according to this 2008 article from Science [PDF], but, of course, THG(tm) has to do it bigger and badder.
But change was afoot. In 1979, the Fisheries Research Board, which had been run mostly by university scientists, was dissolved; the Freshwater Institute and ELA were transferred to DFO. The move put department officials, not scientists, in charge and eventually had a large impact on the direction of the research, says Schindler.

DFO’s primary focus was on marine rather than freshwater issues, and ELA gradually lost its favored status. Raising funds for experiments became increasingly hard. “We’d always fall through the cracks,” Schindler recalls. Fed up, he left for the University of Alberta, Edmonton, in 1989.

Also at about that time, a few officials with the province of Ontario began to look askance at ELA’s practice of dosing the lakes with one pollutant after another. One example in particular sticks in the craw of Robert Hecky, who took over as director after Schindler. ELA scientists had been adding cadmium, a metal released from smelters and coal-fired power plants, to Lake 382 to see whether provincial regulations were tight enough to protect aquatic organisms. A few years after Schindler left, Ontario’s then–minister of environment halted that work, forbidding ELA scientists from adding any more cadmium. “They threatened to shut down the whole ELA if we didn’t stop,” recalls a still-outraged Hecky—despite the fact that power plants were emitting greater concentrations of cadmium on a regular basis. Hecky says he soon realized that plans to add polychlorinated biphenyls to the lakes weren’t going to fly, either.

The nadir came in 1996, when the federal government tried to shut ELA during a round of belt-tightening. Hecky resigned in protest. Scientific societies such as the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography rushed to ELA’s defense, and the lab was saved. ELA is secure now, assures Robert Lambe, DFO’s regional director in charge of the Freshwater Institute. “It’s not in the crosshairs.”
I'd love to see the same world-wide outcry, but I'm not optimistic that THG(tm) would back down. The fuckers.
posted by maudlin at 12:26 PM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

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