House debate sparks experts to expose faulty government arguments on ELA

HoC-4C-Detailed-75mm-NoTextThere was an excellent example recently of how true debate in the House of Commons should provide a fertile ground for the public to engage in and contribute to improved governance.

The Society of Canadian Limnologists (scientists who study bodies of fresh water) last week published a letter which refuted critical arguments made by Minister Gary Goodyear as he defended the government’s position on closing the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). These arguments were made in response to my questioning during debate in the House of Commons.

As a result, it is clear that there were no good reasons for ending federal funding for the ELA and — given that the governments of Ontario and Manitoba have pledged to help the ELA stay open — there is no good reason for the Conservative government to continue preventing scientists from being on site to conduct their research and maintain their experiments.

This is a great example of how useful the debate in the House of Commons can be if MPs understand the issues and know the right questions to ask, they are asking and answering questions without using pre-written notes, and experts amongst the public follow the debate and inject their expertise. (It should be said that Mr. Goodyear is a relatively strong Conservative Minister who can and does answer questions in debate and doesn’t simply read from pre-written talking points).

The debate in the House:

MP Ted Hsu: Mr. Speaker, the hon. Minister of State for Science and Technology spoke about scientific knowledge being used to help the government form public policy. He also talked about cleaning up Lake Winnipeg. I know my colleague understands that in science it is important to do experiments to understand things. I am wondering if he would agree that it is better to do an experiment on a small lake than it is to do an experiment on Lake Winnipeg.

Minister Gary Goodyear: Mr. Speaker, I know my hon. colleague is in fact a scientist himself and would understand that there is the capability of not actually using the entire lake to do freshwater studies. I am sure my scientific colleague knows that equipment can be set in the lake so that research can be done in a contained area and the entire lake is not exposed to the experiment. I would encourage scientists to consider that.

Letter from the Society of Canadian Limnologists (click on image for full letter)

Goodyear Letter

Background

The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is an important and unique research facility. Since 1968, scientists from around the world have been coming to northwestern Ontario to study freshwater lakes. The ELA allows scientists to use the whole lake ecosystem to do “extreme science”: scientists can see the effects of any number of long-term investigations on the whole ecosystem, rather than working in a controlled, man-made laboratory. Some of the most important results on acid rain, climate change, and safe drinking water have emerged from research at the ELA.

Bill C-38, the first 2012 Budget implementation (omnibus) bill, shockingly included the defunding of the ELA, a move that was criticized in Canada and internationally. Nature, a leading scientific journal, said that it “is hard to believe that finance is the true reason” for shutting down the ELA. For negligible savings to the federal budget, the Conservative government was willing to risk eliminating a laboratory that provided crucial information to help safeguard freshwater resources in Canada and around the world.

Personal Note

Over the past year I have joined the fight to save the ELA. Last July, I spoke at the “Death of Evidence” rally in Ottawa, which was organized by ELA and other scientists protesting the government’s reduction of the role of scientific evidence in policy-making.

I’ve also used an Order Paper question to gather further information on the ELA closing, specifically seeking to highlight the value of the ELA and the high cost of the closure, which you can read here.

Our office has met several times with ELA scientists, and we have worked hard to challenge the closure. In the end, however, I was disappointed to see the Conservative government ignore — and even obscure — the facts. However, the impressive efforts of the grassroots Save the ELA organization gave us much to hope for.

Update

As of early May, scientists continued to be denied access to the ELA facility.

However, on May 9, 2013, the federal government announced that an agreement had been reached with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a not-for-profit NGO, to take over operations of the ELA. The IISD will be supported by the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba, with some resources for managing the transition from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The agreement included provisions for scientists to access and maintain their experiments.

 

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[…] advanced way” to do science is through smaller scale experiments. This misleading claim was quickly shot down by the president of the Society of Canadian […]

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