A shuttered science facility reveals the PM’s priorities

by Paul Dechene

Illustration by Dakota McFadzeanThere’s something just not right about Stephen Harper. You know what I mean. The too tidy hair. The way he robotically shakes his male offspring’s hand. The precision piano playing.

His thing for cats.

There’s this otherworldly quality to our prime minister.

Add to this the fact that under his leadership, the Canadian government shut down the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory and the Yukon Research Laboratory, slashed the Environment Canada budget, terminated the Office of the Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, killed funding to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and the Adaptation to Climate Change Research Group, and cut 75 scientists from the Fisheries and Oceans marine toxicology program.

At the same time, Canada has become renowned around the world for thwarting progress at international climate change summits. And just last week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced that Canada will withdraw from the UN convention to combat droughts and desertification.

We’re the only country in the world to go rogue on the question of droughts.

It’s almost as if Harper doesn’t care about the planet at all, like it’s not his concern. Like it’s not his planet! And he’s using his position as prime minister to remake the global climate into something unfamiliar and inhospitable.

Something alien.

Perhaps the climate will become something more conducive to our PM’s peculiar, off-world biology. But for us humans? Not so much.

Armed with this evidence of a possible extraterrestrial motive driving Harper’s environmental policy, we at Prairie Dog think we’ve finally deduced the reason behind his government’s decision to close the Experimental Lakes Area [which we reported on last year: “ELA Soon To Be MIA”, May 21, 2012].

Think about it. The ELA is an idyllic system of 58 lakes in a remote corner of northwestern Ontario where, for 44 years, scientists from around the world have been free to conduct experiments in a natural environment far from cities and industry. It’s a lush wilderland — green, fertile, isolated. And, as of March 31, it is officially closed — a guard posted there to keep the scientists out.

It’s the perfect place for Harper to grow his POD PEOPLE!

I brought this theory to University of Regina biologist Britt Hall, one of the scientists whose work has been jeopardized by the ELA closure.

“As a scientist, I would have to say you might need more evidence on the whole ‘other planet’ side of things,” she says.

What Hall lacks in insight into the extraterrestrial threat posed by our prime minister and his anti-science minions (anti-human-science minions, I should say) she makes up for in her commitment to the ELA. Since our interview last May, Hall has emerged as one of the key spokespeople in the international effort to keep the facility open.

It’s an effort that’s been gaining considerable momentum. Numerous articles have been written about the ELA closure in media outlets around the world, and the Conservatives have been hammered by the opposition on the subject in question period since last fall.

And despite the fact that a groundswell of opposition has risen up from the world’s scientists, Harper’s government remains steadfast.

But Hall notes that there is a glimmer of hope. Media reports revealed that the government is negotiating with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a Winnipeg-based non-profit, to have them take over the facility.

“If it happens, we’re pretty confident that [having a] new operator will mean the science will continue,” she says. But unfortunately, even if a deal is struck between the federal government and the IISD immediately, it won’t come in time to allow that science to happen this summer. And that will have grave consequences for some of the research at the ELA.

“As we expected, the government didn’t give themselves enough time to find an operator before their closing date of March 31,” says Hall. “So we found out that they told a group of researchers out at Trent University that they were not able to go out there this year. And they had $800,000 from [the National Science and Engineering Research Council] to do this whole ecosystem experiment where they were going to add nano-silver particles to a lake and track it.”

Even a closure for one season will prove catastrophic to the Trent team, Hall says, because the two years of data they’ve already collected at the ELA in preparation for their study will have to be thrown out if they can’t continue their project this summer. And that means $800,000 in federal government funding has been wasted.

Of course, if wasting money was really a concern, the government wouldn’t be closing the facility so rapidly.

The bulk of the ELA’s budget goes to the salaries of the scientists who work there. And while those scientist have already been informed that their work at the facility is coming to an end, they still have four more months to decide whether to stay working within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, take a buy-out package or continue working in their current job for another year despite the ELA closure.

In other words, according to Hall, “The government is on the hook for their salaries until at least the middle of July or possibly a year from July.

“So the government is paying the salaries of the scientists this summer regardless of what happens. They’re going to have scientists sitting in Winnipeg being paid and the ELA sitting idle, and they’re not going to be doing anything.

“This whole thing is ridiculous.”

Saving money by paying people to not do their job. It’s the kind of accounting that can only make sense on some kind of hyperdimensional ledger unfettered by our earthly mathematics.

You know, I kind of hope this joke about Harper and his cabinet being a bunch of invading aliens turns out to be true.

Because based on the way they’ve handled the ELA — not to mention all their other science assets — the alternative is that they’re idiots.