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Funding Evaporates for Freshwater Science Research

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Issue: 84 Section: Environment Geography: Prairies Canada Topics: Budget cuts, DFO, experimental lake, research

August 13, 2012

Funding Evaporates for Freshwater Science Research

Proposed closure of experimental lakes threatens important, ongoing research

by Sheldon Birnie

Experimental lakes are one of the main ways Canadian scientists can research and understand the health of our freshwater ecosystems. Federal funding cuts have put them in serious jeopardy though. Photo: Melissa McCabe

WINNIPEG—Freshwater science researchers in Canada could soon find themselves without a world renowned, one-of-a-kind facility in Northwestern Ontario to conduct their studies. If the federal government goes through with plans to cut the $2 million in annual funding to the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), the research station will close its doors on April 1, 2013, leaving many graduate students stranded mid-project.

The decision has been lambasted in the media by scientists, who see the move to cut $2 million in annual expenditures as shortsighted, to say the least. Researcher David Schindler of the University of Alberta, a freshwater science expert who has done extensive work researching the effects of tar sands developments downstream on the Athabasca River system, considers the funding cut to be symptomatic of a larger issue. “The real problem is we have a bunch of people running science in this country who don’t even know what science is,” he told reporters at a June 15 press conference.

Researchers at Trent University are currently in the early stages of a project that monitors the effects of nanosilver on a whole lake system level. One of the fastest growing substances in the marketplace today, nanosilver is a minute particle that is added to hundreds of consumer products including clothing, bandages and bug spray. As these products enter the environment, the products breakdown and particles are released into freshwater systems. Early lab studies discovered negative impacts on marine life.

Just last year, the project, which is under the direction of Chris Metcalfe at the Institute for Freshwater Science at Trent, received a $750,000 grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to conclude the three-year study. Metcalfe told the Winnipeg Free Press that with the NSERC grant, he and his team of graduate students would have been able to test the whole ecosystem effects of these particles at the ELA—tests that cannot be conducted in a laboratory setting. The results of the research are now in jeopardy.

At the University of Manitoba, a study on the behavioural and physiological differences between escaped farmed and wild rainbow trout had just been completed when news of the impending closure came out in the federal budget.

“I was probably one of the few lucky ones that had actually completed the field component of my research at the time of the closure announcement,” Master’s student Matthew Martens recently told the Gradzette, the University of Manitoba’s graduate student newspaper. “A number of Master’s, PhD students and postdoctoral fellows were in the process of designing and implementing experiments at the ELA. Since fieldwork is an huge component to ecology and life sciences in general, closing the ELA in the midst of active student research, leaves students with little options to salvage invested time and data that went into their research.”

Jason Venkiteswaran is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Waterloo, where he also did his graduate work studying the effects of flooding due to hydroelectric development. His current research is on eutrophication, a hydrologic process where high nutrient levels, often from agricultural runoff, lead to excessive plant growth, causing detrimental effects on the natural ecosystem.

“This work is on Lake 227,” he told The Dominion in an interview. “It’s the longest running experiment at the ELA. It’s been eutrophied since 1969 or 1970. [The research] would end. So the lake with the greatest amount of eutrophication data, probably the most studied lake in the world with regard to eutrophication, would simply stop being the place where everybody would want to come to study eutrophication.”

Venkitsewaran is concerned that losing the ELA as a place to conduct research will have a detrimental effect not only on Canadian universities attracting top students, researchers and faculty, but also on freshwater science in Canada itself.

“The results from the ELA are useful across the country,” says Venkitsewaran. “It is a kind of national program that every place in the country has a stake in—the acid-sensitive lakes in Nova Scotia, acid-sensitive lakes across Northern Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s the same with lakes in the northern Prairies, in the boreal forest. All these places face similar issues like eutrophication, mercury deposition, acid deposition. A place like ELA can handle research that covers all those places.”

Without the current funding from the federal government, that research will become increasingly difficult to conduct, if not cease altogether.

Frank Stanek, a spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told The Dominion in an email that other facilities are better aligned with the research mandate of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

“We understand that science is the backbone of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and we recognize that important work has been done at the facility, but we are now focussing on work being conducted at other freshwater research facilities across the country, which will more than adequately meet the research needs of DFO,” wrote Stanek.

According to the DFO, the “work being conducted at the ELA is not directly aligned with the Department's core mandate of research that supports decision-making on habitat and fisheries management.” Stanek suggested that other sectors, such as universities or private interests, are better suited to run the facility, “as they are better positioned to undertake the type of studies requiring a whole-ecosystem manipulation.”

However, Venkitsewaran does not believe that universities will be able to fund the facility, citing the manner in which universities fund studies.

“The way that university granting systems [work] is you’re only looking at three or four years at a time,” says Venkitsewaran. “You can’t run a long term facility that way. It means every two or three years you go into panic mode trying to find money to keep going.”

With no clear alternative to the current federally funded model in place, it is possible that graduate students and researchers currently working out of the ELA across the country will find themselves high and dry come April 2013. However, it is Canadians, as beneficiaries of that research, who will truly be the ones who are losing out.

Sheldon Birnie is a writer, editor, and song & dance man living in Winnipeg, MB.

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