Harper’s War On Science: An Interview With Britt Hall

The catalyst for that article on the potential closure of the Experimental Lakes Area was an e-mail sent to me by Britt Hall, a biologist at the University of Regina. And, full disclosure, Britt and her family are friends of ours. So, it’s not surprising she’d e-mail me about the ELA defunding seeing as she’s well aware that ranting about the depredations to which Harper and his Earth-hating minions are subjecting Canadian science is kind of an annoying habit of mine.

And, because she’s a friend, she also knows that I find transcribing interviews to be a real pain in the arse (and the metacarpals) so she offered to conduct our interview about the ELA through e-mail. (Thanks Britt!) What you’ll read below is that interview cut and pasted in full.

But before I get to that, I should note that since we published our article, a campaign has launched called Save ELA and they’re having a press conference in Winnipeg today (June 5) at which several top scientists will talk about the importance of this unique research site. If you want to learn more about the ELA and how you can help rescue it from Harper’s axe, be sure to check out their website.

prairie dog: Why is the Experimental Lakes Area [ELA] important? And you mention that its closure affects you professionally. How so?

Britt Hall: There are a number of reasons why the ELA is important.  But by far the most important is that it allows researchers to study possible changes to lakes and all of the life within lakes by manipulating the entire ecosystem.

For example, every biology and ecology textbook in North America describes a whole ecosystem experiment that found that excess phosphorus causes algal blooms in some types of lakes.  They discovered this by adding carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus to part of a lake. And carbon, nitrogen — but without the phosphorus —  to the other part of the lake.  Two curtains kept the water from one basin separate from the other.  The side of the lake that received the phosphorus turned pea-soup green as an algal bloom developed.

The experiment that I’m involved in is called METAALICUS – Mercury Experiment to Assess Atmospheric Loading in Canada and the US.  We used a boat and a plane to spray different isotopes of mercury to the water and surrounding forests and wetlands. We didn’t use a ton of mercury. The levels added were similar to that which is added to lakes and ecosystems near coal fired powerplants.  These different mercury isotopes are like signatures that can be traced separately.  So one isotope was sprayed on the lake, another on the forest and yet another on the wetland.  After we loaded the ecosystem, we looked at the mercury isotopes in all components of the lake: water, sediments, insects, fish etc. We were able to say that if mercury falls from the atmosphere onto the water surface, it will enter the food chain pretty quickly.  If mercury falls on the surrounding forest, it is bound up and not likely to be washed into the lake.  However, we don’t know if eventually that mercury in the forest will end up in the lake and then in the fish.  We stopped loading the lake a few years ago and are now studying how long it takes for the mercury levels in the lake to return to normal — or when and if we see that the forest mercury shows up.  This is important because recently the US developed mercury emission standards.  If we had loaded the lake and not seen the mercury isotope show up, then why ask emitters to spend millions reducing emissions?

My role in this project is to follow the mercury in the aquatic insects.  The closure [of the ELA] will mean that I will not be able to continue that project.

pd: Similar question: Why are you taking this so personally? What does the ELA mean to you?

BH: If you are lucky, you have a time in your early adulthood when you figure out who you are going to be.  What you are going to stand for and how you are going to fit into the world around you.  That happened to me, not just at the ELA, but because of the ELA.

Imagine a place in the middle of the forest, four hours drive from the nearest town, where you are surrounded by raw nature, there is only one tv and radio channel and no internet.  Then add in the fact that you live five months of the year with a diverse set of people that you are united with because of a passion for the environment and science.

I met life long friends there, I was exposed to art and music and books that I would never have discovered. I learned to paddle a canoe, spent umpteen nights next to a campfire with my dog. I swam in the clear lakes many times a day. I met my husband there.  I would never have watched Deliverance if I hadn’t been at ELA — which in hindsight was a pretty brave thing to do considering we were deep in the forest and spent many weekends canoeing.

This is going to sound corny, but I started an amazing journey of self discovery there that I am still continuing, albeit at a much slower rate.  It makes me sick that others may not experience that. It makes me sick that I won’t be able to take my kids there and tell them how being at the ELA changed my life.

And mine was not a unique experience. Many of my friends would say very similar things.

pd: I’ve read that shutting the ELA down is tantamount to the U.S. closing Los Alamos. Is that an exaggeration? Is it really that significant?

BH: The ELA has produced over 1000 peer reviewed scientific articles, graduate theses, book chapters, data reports, and books. It has provided training for hundreds of students at all levels.  Research at ELA has made important contributions to environmental policy and legislation in Canada and around the world.

However, for me, what is perhaps one of the most important legacies is the recognition that you can not treat a lake as just a lake.  A lake is intimately connected to the atmosphere, the forest and wetlands surrounding it, the stream that flows to and from it.  Research at the ELA taught us that we need to approach environmental research at an ecosystem scale and now it is common place to study both a lake and its watershed, the environment surrounding it, when examining changes to that lake.

As well, the ELA is the only place in the world where whole ecosystem manipulation can be done. The lakes are remote, they are not impacted by nearby pollution so it is also one of the only places that we can monitor changes to freshwater systems with climate change.

pd: Why shouldn’t the ELA be run by one or more universities?

BH: First off, many Canadian universities are not in the financial position to be taking on major facilities, even if they wanted to.

With the moratorium of the Major Resources Support Program (see below), there is simply nowhere to go for funding. Unless universities were to pair with industry, which is happening more and more.

Even then, finding a suitable partner that wouldn’t mind possible liabilities associated with whole ecosystem manipulation would be difficult.  Dumping mercury into a lake could potentially be a risky thing to do if you were not careful. Do you really want that liability as a for-profit company?

Second, one of ELA’s greatest contributions, as well as it assets, is the 44 year old data set on water quality in lakes.  Long term datasets are absolutely crucial for understanding how ecosystems work, how they respond to changes – you need to know what things were like before to understand them after.  However, they are not great for University researchers.  If I was to aspire to create a long term dataset, if I was lucky and managed to get the funding needed, it would be 30 years old at most and then I would retire.

It takes a lot of resources to build a long term data set.  That is one of the reasons why Peter Leavitt’s [a biologist at the University of Regina] long term dataset on water chemistry in the Qu’Appelle valley lakes is so special.  But it is rare. As well, a long term data set doesn’t get you much as far as publications.  You could probably put out a paper every few years documenting trends, but in a publish or perish environment, as most universities are, you need to supplement your long term data with experiments to produce a decent publication record.

As I said, this all takes a lot of resources.

That said, the ELA would not be able to function without the many, many university researchers that do work there.  So, the relationships among the ELA and universities all over the world is very important.

pd: You mentioned [in an earlier e-mail] “Harper’s war on science.” Do you really think that’s what we’re seeing here?

BH: It seems that way to me.  I guess I should have said war on environmental science, since I have not heard of cuts to health research funding.

But, consider the changes to the Fisheries Act that are part of the omnibus budget bill, cutting the marine contaminants program a day after announcing the ELA closure, shutting down the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy, cuts to Environment Canada, weakening of environmental assessment requirements.

As well, there was the recent decision to put a moratorium on the National Science and Engineering Research Council’s Major Resources Support Program, a program designed to support “unique national and international” scientific resources, just like the ELA, and it just feels like they are wiping out all environmental science programs.

I suspect it will take decades to recover from this, if we do at all.  I also feel that they are hitting the scientific community with all this at once, and therefore weakening the ability to fight back.

pd: Care to venture a guess at a motive behind the Cons’ anti-science stance?

BH: Well, from the ELA perspective, it is confusing.

Erin Filliter, spokeswoman for federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, was quoted as saying “It makes more sense to allow it to be owned and operated by those who will benefit from this unique research facility.”

Now, all Canadians benefit from clean water and unpolluted lakes, so we (ie. our government) should own and operate the ELA. So, that reasoning doesn’t seem sincere to me.

There have also been justifications that it is all about budget cuts.  But the operating budget of the ELA, including salaries of the researchers, is only about $2 million annually.  Considering it’s importance, that seems like a pittance. Especially if you note that last year, Harper’s largest office, the Privy Council Office, spent $340,000 on hospitality, largely on “drinks, meals and other largesse”.

So, I find it hard to believe that budgetary concerns are the issue.

As well, according to Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ own publications, DFO has recognized the ELA’s value and importance.  In 2010, they spend $810K on a new fish lab that has been operational for not even two years.  But, the DFO has also said that the goals of the ELA no longer fit its mandate.  Something changed between two years ago and now. And this change coincides with the Harper majority.

pd: Surely, the ELA could become more profitable if it were used for cottages and resorts?

BH: Oh….  that is such a sad thought, but if they close the place, there is a beautiful road accessing some of the most gorgeous cottage country in the world.  What a travesty that would be (unless you had the thousands of dollars it would probably take to secure a property).

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5’10” tall and he was born in a place. He’s not there now. He’s sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It’s “Girl From Ipanema”, thanks for asking.

You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

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