• Fifty-eight lakes are set aside for research at the Experimental Lakes Area research facility. (Photo: Paul C. Frost)

The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a research facility comprising 58 lakes just east of Kenora, in northwestern Ontario, is in uncharted financial waters and struggling to stay afloat. A sweep of federal budget cuts that will see funding for it and several other research stations end next year means ELA now has to market itself as something more than just a source of data that can lead to environmental protection policies.

ELA is world-renowned for its studies that identified the harmful effects of acid rain and pinpointed phosphorus as the toxic chemical in detergents that triggers algal blooms in lakes and rivers. Its specialty — testing whether human activities are harmful to freshwater ecosystems — may be valuable, but it’s hardly a commodity. Neither is the monitoring of the ozone layer at the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory in the High Arctic or the environmental monitoring done at the Kluane Lake Research Station northwest of Whitehorse, both of which lost government support this year.

To David Schindler, the Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton who directed ELA for 22 years after its inception in 1968, field stations’ funding woes are a sign of the times. Scientific research, he says, is rarely funded “unless it produces widgets that can be sold.” With field stations, the ultimate widget is environmental policy and the federal government is the main market.

Reaching out to the oil sands industry, says Schindler, is the obvious alternative. The water chemistry at ELA is similar enough to the Athabasca River that the results of studies examining the effects of oil sands activities on freshwater ecosystems would still be relevant. This funding model is nothing new, says Schindler; it was the Government of Alberta’s nowdefunct Oil Sands Environmental Research Program, which worked to identify potential long-term impacts of oil sands development, that began funding acid rain research at ELA in the 1970s.

ELA hasn’t yet approached industry about providing the $1.9 million per year required for operational costs and salaries. Meanwhile, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), which has operated ELA since it opened, is looking to universities to foot the bill, saying its own mandate focuses on marine, not freshwater, ecosystems.

But few universities could cover ELA’s budget, says Mark Forbes, an ecology professor and the associate vice-president of research at Carleton University in Ottawa. Forbes has been trying to identify potential funding sources for field stations since he helped establish the still nascent Canadian Field Research Network (CFRNet) in 2010, when several facilities lost government support and grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. One of CFRNet’s mandates will be to help field station managers share best practices for finding sustainable funding.

CFRNet has made little progress so far. Among smaller research facilities, such as the Wildlife Research Station in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, “there’s some talk of looking to charitable foundations, engaging universities and reaching out to private donors,” says Forbes, “but it’s hard to convince anyone to fund field stations” in the current economic climate. Some stations are focusing on building revenue by offering field courses through universities and possibly partnering with regional tourism organizations. The Wildlife Research Station and The Friends of Algonquin Park, for instance, have begun hosting “Meet the Researcher Day” events for park visitors.

But it will take more than incremental donations or event-based fundraising to keep larger field stations like ELA operating. While some industries, such as mining, might support individual research projects directly related to their activities, says Forbes, it may not be in their interest to take on the station’s operating costs. Ethics could also come into question. “There are funding mechanisms where industry has control over intellectual property, and that’s a big issue if study results show industry activities are harmful,” says Forbes.

The funding scramble has left many scientists, including Maggie Xenopoulos, a biology professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., in a bind. ELA is the only place in Canada where Xenopoulos can study the environmental effects of nanoparticles — microscopic materials used for myriad applications, including the delivery of drugs to cancerous cells — on an entire lake ecosystem.

Nanotechnology is growing rapidly but “hardly anyone is stopping to ask whether these nanoparticles are safe — for people or for the environment,” says Xenopoulos. And while she has secured funding for a multi-year project to test silver nanoparticles on a lake ecosystem, Xenopoulos can’t continue her research past the preliminary stages if ELA closes. “There’s no other place where we can do this work,” she says. “You can’t move a lake into a lab.”

Research that leads to regulatory policies for nanotechnology would “place Canada at the forefront [of research], like other experiments at ELA have done in the past,” she says. “A lot of governments and agencies around the world would use these results to develop their policies.”

Still, for Xenopoulos and others the challenge remains to convince potential funders that being a leader in environmental policy is worth almost two million dollars a year.

See also:
Ring around the pole
A new High Arctic field station joins a circle of polar research centres
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