Canadian Science Goes Down the Drain

A limnologist laments the deserted Experimental Lakes, sapped fisheries management, and more.

By David Schindler 14 May 2014 | TheTyee.ca

David Schindler is Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology emeritus at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. From 1968 to 1989, he founded and directed the Experimental Lakes Project. This article first appeared in the Royal Society of Canada's 2014 spring bulletin and is reprinted with permission.

Two years ago, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced that it would be closing the Experimental Lakes Area as part of a budget-balancing move. The government first announced that the ELA was no longer needed, and that similar science could be done at its other facilities. Never mind that the ELA had a license to perform whole-ecosystem experiments that were not possible at any other facility in the world, or that the station had the longest monitoring record for lakes and streams in Canada.

The announcement caused outrage in the international science community, among journalists and the general public. The Harper government, bewildered that there would be such widespread support for an obscure low-budget field station, quickly changed its story: they would be seeking a new operator for the site. Only one such operator showed interest: the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a Winnipeg-based think tank. Negotiations between DFO and IISD began in the autumn of that year. March 31, 2014 was set as a target date for an agreement.

During the first week of April 2014, the long negotiations finally closed and the ELA was transferred to IISD. Thanks are due to the many scientists, journalists, editors, politicians and private citizens who threw their support behind the ELA, and to the IISD for their patience during the lengthy process.

Negotiations with scientists who were on DFO's ELA team are still underway, and it is uncertain how many of them will move to IISD. They must weigh the relative advantages of being part of a large government department with excellent pension plans versus remaining a part of the high-stature ELA team, but with less security. I am optimistic that many will choose the latter. DFO has not been a comfortable home for ELA personnel for at least 20 years. But most believed that the science they did was important, and figured out how to get it done, working weekends and building their own equipment if necessary. A large part of the ELA's success resulted from perfecting the art of "guerrilla science."

Poisoning the oats of the research donkey

The Experimental Lakes Area began as a project in 1968, under the Fisheries Research Board of Canada (FRBC). The then-chairman, F.R. Hayes, and most other members of the board believed that sound fisheries management must be based on solid basic science. In the 1970s, the FRBC was disbanded, and its personnel were transferred to the civil service in what eventually became the modern DFO.

DFO, largely run by bureaucrats with little knowledge of fisheries, has never understood why whole ecosystems must be studied rather than just fish, so that the ecosystem approach used at the ELA has never fared well in bureaucratic assessments of the Department's priorities. The ELA has struggled along with its recent key experiments largely funded by grants to university scientists, disguising the participation of DFO personnel by calling what they do "fish habitat research." This outdated view of fisheries management is in good part why cod, salmon and other species "managed" by DFO are in jeopardy. 

The other part of the fisheries management problem is that financial considerations have always outweighed environmental concerns when political choices must be made between the "bottom line" and protecting fish stocks. As Hayes astutely predicted in his book on the history of the FRBC, The Chaining of Prometheus, managers in the civil service "will slyly slip sawdust into the oats of the research donkey until the animal becomes moribund." As described below, under the Harper government, the diet of DFO's current research donkey appears to contain no oats whatsoever. It is high time that research to underpin environmental policy is once again done at arm's length from the political process, as it was under the Fisheries Research Board.

The governments of Ontario and Manitoba have been able to see the value that escaped the Harper government, committing enough funding to operate the ELA station for the next several years. A federal NSERC grant to scientists at Trent University to study the ecosystem effects of silver nanoparticles, potentially potent biocides that are becoming ubiquitous in the environment, will allow a new ecosystem-scale experiment to begin, the first in several years. 

But to use the ELA to full advantage, the ecological community must act quickly to devise and obtain funding for more of the ecosystem-scale projects that have been the ELA's legacy, and to secure reliable long-term support that is not dependent on political processes. This is a tall order that will require help from the academic community. IISD scientists presumably will not have access either to NSERC funding or to the federal departmental resources that have helped to maintain the ELA over the years.

Enviro science singled out

What has happened to the ELA is only a small part of what has been aptly described by journalist Chris Turner as "The War on Science" carried out by the Harper government. Many research stations have been closed or funding cut. Over 2,300 federal scientists have been cut. When confronted, the government's standard response has been that it is funding more science than any government before it, avoiding the issue that environmental science has been singled out for cuts.

Much of the new government funding has gone toward industry-university partnerships, in the vague hope that these will spawn new gadgets that can be flogged abroad to spur Canada's flagging manufacturing industry. In short, funding that once went to protect the public interest of Canadians has been diverted to assist industry with its research needs. Cutting environmental science, threatening environmental groups, and weakening of environmental laws such as the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Species at Risk Act, and the Navigation Act appear to be part of a vague general plan to speed the unopposed approval of new energy projects.

One example of the poor understanding of the importance of the ELA and other environmental science by the Harper government is a statement made by on March 20, 2013, by Gary Goodyear, then-minister of state for science and technology, in an attempt to justify closing the Experimental Lakes Area. The minister declared that money could be saved by conducting small scale experiments rather than using whole lakes, and that such approaches would also protect the lakes (at the ELA) from harm. This ignores the fact that the ELA has repeatedly shown that using such small-scale experiments as a basis for environmental policy would have resulted in flawed policy that did not protect aquatic ecosystems! Recently, an independent audit of lakes used for ELA experiments showed that there was no damage.

Soviet-style muzzling

Other aspects of Harper's "war" include the muzzling of federal scientists, with the claim that departmental voices must be "harmonized." This means that changes to key environmental policies can be imposed on a gullible public without mere scientists revealing their possible flaws. One example is the modification of the Fisheries Act, once considered to be Canada's strongest environmental law. As a small "rider" to omnibus Bill C-38, the government changed the Act to protect only fish species of importance to Commercial, Recreational and Aboriginal fisheries (immediately abbreviated by fisheries bureaucrats to CRA species). Fish populations not being exploited directly for one of these three reasons are now unprotected under the new Act. Ecological principles indicate that many of these unprotected species must indirectly support the CRA species, as members of the food chain. Also, it means that any species in a location too remote to qualify as a CRA species is not protected. Protection of fish habitat was also weakened.

Several of us personally travelled to Ottawa to protest these proposed changes to a Parliamentary Committee. Native leaders and former federal fisheries ministers also testified in opposition to the proposed changes. All these experienced people were assured by Tory committee members, few of whom had any direct experience with the science or policy of fisheries management, that they were wrong: the changes would not weaken the protection of Canadian fisheries. It was as if convincing arguments against the changes simply convinced Tory politicians that they were right. Not long after the changes were made to the Fisheries Act, responsibility for enforcing the Act when new energy projects are reviewed was quietly transferred from DFO to the Alberta Energy Regulator. This organization is devoid of fisheries expertise. During all of these machinations, experienced government environmental scientists, who viewed the changes with dismay, were totally silent.

Currently, when a government scientist makes a new scientific breakthrough, he is not allowed to publish it unless the manuscript is approved by management. Management must actually sign the copyright forms that journals require before publication, whereas in other institutions, authors have that privilege. Once published, a government scientist can't speak about his work to the popular press, unless what he will say is approved by the Prime Minister's Office. This usually means that by the time the scientist's lines receive official approval, the popular media's interest has waned. Also, the approved lines are usually so inane that the scientist is embarrassed to utter them. 

On several occasions, government spokespeople have accompanied their scientists to meetings, to ensure that they said nothing that would cast official government policy in a bad light. This has cast a chill reminiscent of the effect that the KGB "handlers" who accompanied Soviet scientists had on international science meetings in the Cold War era. Overall, federal scientists, many of them internationally-renowned in their fields, are not heard from on matters of environmental policy. The resulting "Silence of the Labs" has caused outrage among non-government scientists, leading hundreds of them to the protest in a "Death of Evidence" march on Parliament Hill on July 10, 2012. At least one new group, titled "Evidence for Democracy" was formed as a result.

Jack-booted omnibus bills

More recently, the closure of government fisheries libraries in Dec. 2013 caused another round of outrage. With little public notice, seven of nine federal fisheries libraries were closed. The public was told that all of the valuable material was digitized, and could be obtained from the remaining two libraries, where the information would be archived. Several scientists have since found that their requests for documents could not be filled.

This action shows little understanding of how scholarship works. When one is crafting an original paper, whether it be on science or some other sort of scholarship, efficient work requires that the necessary materials must be at hand, not accessible at some unknown time in the future. Electronic access has added much to the convenience of scholarship, but it still cannot entirely replace "hard" copy. Those unconvinced by the libraries' importance should peruse this website before making up their minds.

There is growing evidence that environmental science is not the only area in which Canadian experts are under attack. Most recently, there has been widespread criticism of changes to the Elections Act that would make it more difficult for people to prove that they were qualified to vote. Experts and opposition politicians alike see the proposed changes as a thinly-veiled attempt to skew the next election to favour the Conservative Party. As with the debate over the Fisheries Act, the government has been unable to produce reasoned arguments for the changes it is proposing.

Instead, it has resorted to ad hominem attacks on the people who oppose the changes, many of them experienced and respected former officials. As journalist Andrew Coyne observed in the National Post, "That it [the Harper government] could casually dismiss the unanimous expert opposition to the [Elections Act] bill, without bothering to offer a rebuttal, shows contempt not just for those involved but for the whole concept of expertise." Indeed, Canadian experts in all fields must be on guard, including members of the Royal Society of Canada.

For a democracy to function well, experts must be heard so that citizens can make decisions on matters of importance that are based on the best information possible. That changes to the Fisheries Act, the Elections Act, and many other pieces of legislation can be forced down citizen's throats by jack-booted omnibus bills suggests that we live in a very weak democracy, if indeed Canada remains a democracy at all.  [Tyee]

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