Attacks on Tories Simply Science Fiction

By Lett, Dan | Winnipeg Free Press, August 8, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Attacks on Tories Simply Science Fiction

Lett, Dan, Winnipeg Free Press

Governments of all stripes cut lake research

It would be hard to find a more absurd scenario.

Hot on the heels of a decision to cut funding to the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a unique chain of lakes in northwestern Ontario that has served as a living test tube for aquatic research for 40 years, the federal Conservative government awarded $18 million in funding to clean up Lake Winnipeg.

It's not correct to say the left hand of the Tory government did not know what the right hand was doing. It knows exactly what it's doing and, remarkably, does not see a conflict. This is a government that, by its own admission, is all about hard choices as it attempts to trim a budget deficit solely through expenditure control. If that means it has to award funding to one environmental project while cutting funding to another project that produces the science needed to help the first project, so be it.

The Tories have been assailed for the lack of logic in this decision. Lake Winnipeg continues to suffer from suffocating algal blooms caused by a buildup of nutrients, the exact cause of and solution for which are still being debated. The ELA, celebrated worldwide as one of the most imaginative, visionary environmental programs ever created, is one of the leading sources of science that could ultimately guide the cleanup of the lake.

The Tories do not dispute the value of the ELA; in fact, they are counting on the fact that it is so valued by academics and agencies around the world that one or more of them will find money to keep the research going. It's a common strategy for the Tories -- cut loose something they don't want to fund, and dare its supporters to save it.

It's not exactly tough love, because it's unclear the Tories ever loved the ELA. However, to be fair to the Conservatives, the ELA has never been truly appreciated by any government.

Back in 1991, federal auditor general Denis Desautels sounded a warning that budget cuts by the then-Conservative government were threatening the viability of the ELA and putting its renowned research activities "in doubt." In 1996, the Liberal government, possessed by a need to slay the deficit, asked the Fisheries and Oceans Department to cut nearly $500 million from its budget. Among the victims of this edict was -- you guessed it -- the ELA. Liberal cuts reduced staff at the facility by nearly two-thirds and although it did not kill the program, it certainly limited the work it was able to do.

"This is programmed extinction," one of the senior ELA scientists complained at the time. "Eventually, there will be so little activity (at the institute) that no one will miss it when it disappears."

The ugly fact of the matter is Ottawa -- no matter the colour of the current government -- has never truly appreciated scientific research of any kind.

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