Is the federal government turning Canadian science into for-profit only?

Scientists and politicians gather in Winnipeg, near the Assiniboine River behind the Manitoba legislature, on Tuesday to urge Ottawa to keep the Experimental Lakes Area freshwater research station.

Science is under attack in Canada.

It's hard to have to write that, given that Canada has some of the leading scientists and research facilities in the world, but it's also hard to draw any other conclusion, based on what the federal government has been up to for the past 7 years.

Just from reading through Huffington Post's 'Stifling Science' page: They shut down the Office of the National Science Advisor, which advised the Prime Minister on issues of science, technology and the environment. They closed the doors of the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), an important lab for studying the effects of climate change on the environment. They canceled the budgets of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) — a facility known around the world for conducting exemplary science in the field of water quality — and the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) — which sought to mesh economic and environmental issues to keep Canada prosperous while maintaining a clean environment. The also withdrew the country from the Kyoto Protocol treaty on climate change.

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It doesn't stop there, though. They have apparently also 'muzzled' government scientists by forcing them to sign agreements preventing them from speaking to the public or the media unless a federal representative gave the 'all-clear' to do so, an activity that earned them a rant from Rick Mercer:

There's a chance to be fair here, though. Not all science has been slashed. It seems that anything that helps development of the Athabasca oilsands is doing just fine.

"This is about the government's priorities, and the government's priorities include oilsands development, which, I should also add, they subsidize to the tune of billions of dollars each year," said Tom Duck, a professor at Dalhousie University who's research focuses on work done at PEARL, in a Huffington Post interview. "So their priorities involve oilsands development, and anything that they see as interfering with that is getting attacked and is getting cut."

"What this means is that there has been, for most university-based scientists, a one- to two-year gap in funding. And that is very serious. Because what that's done is precipitate the collapse of many different research programs," he added. "This is not about there not being enough money. We spent $18 million on War of 1812 celebrations. We’re spending on the order of $10 million this year on 'Action Plan' ads."

For comparison, PEARL costs about $1.5 million to run each year. The ELA does its work for about $2 million a year.

And it's not just the oilsands. Science in Canada, as far as the federal government is concerned, seems to be all about what can turn a profit. At least that's the feeling people are getting from the 2007 Industry Canada report titled Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada's Advantage.

There's been plenty of sharp criticism directed at the government about all of this, saying that it's an assault on democracy, and calling for an end to the 'politicization' of science, but it has, apparently, done very little to change their minds on any of these issues.

"Five years ago, I never would have thought they’d be closing the Experimental Lakes Area," said John Smol, according to Huffington Post. "You go to any conference in the world, you just have to say ELA and everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about. That’s a jewel in our scientific crown, if you like, in Canada. Gone. There’s a lot of things that happened that I did not predict would happen. So it's worse than I thought it would be five years ago."

Fortunately, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne stepped in last week to save the Experimental Lakes Area, promising funding to keep it running for now, at least. That's a great move on her part, considering that the science done at the ELA has helped protect our water ways, the environment, and the health and welfare of the Canadian people (not to mention people around the world).

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Not every project is so fortunate, though, and the entire scientific community is feeling the effects of all this.

"It's not isolated," said Duck. "This is across the scientific community. This is a specific example for what happened to my group, but any research group, particularly in environmental science, is utterly crippled by this funding gap. That’s a story that is just absolutely pervasive."

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