06/05/2012 12:48 EDT | Updated 08/05/2012 05:12 EDT

Scientists protest federal cuts to open-air lake research facility

EDMONTON - Dozens of top scientists from around the world are criticizing Ottawa's decision to cut funding for a unique open-air laboratory in a move one prominent Canadian researcher calls part of the Harper government's rush to develop resources.

"I think they view environmental scientists as people who supply fuel to the crazy environmentalists that we all know get billions of dollars from foreign contributors to block good clean industrial development in Canada," David Schindler, a renowned University of Alberta ecologist and water scientist, said Tuesday.

Schindler spoke at a news conference to release an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper from eight leading scientists from Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain. They are protesting the planned closing of the Experimental Lake Area, a globally unique facility that allows biologists, zoologists, chemists and others to run experiments involving entire ecosystems.

Letters to Harper have also been sent from researchers in Israel and Scandinavia. An online petition has been signed by scientists from 50 countries. Support has come from the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard University.

The experimental area, composed of 58 remote Ontario lakes and an on-site laboratory, has yielded crucial data on concerns such as acid rain and fertilizer contamination. Schindler said it continues to be a base for research relevant to questions on the cumulative impacts of oilsands development, how ecosystems process toxins such as mercury, the effects of hydro development and climate change.

Since its creation in 1968, it has led to 1,100 peer-reviewed scientific papers and helped train a generation of Canadian and international researchers.

"The excuse that this is some useless facility that has outlived its days is utter nonsense," said Schindler.

Heidi Swanson, a freshwater biologist involved in the lobbying effort to keep the centre open, said no scientists were consulted on the decision to close the facility next March. They were informed of the decision at an emergency meeting called by bureaucrats.

Total federal funding to the facility is about $2 million.

Bill Donahue of the environmental group Water Matters pointed out that amount is less than the budget for the Prime Minister's Office. He said budget documents show the Privy Council Office spent $340,000 on hospitality last year, slightly less than Fisheries and Ocean's contribution to the Experimental Lakes Area.

"I am challenged to understand how this government or the minister of fisheries can square its assertion that the ELA must be closed to save money with the fact that a single political office in a single year is spending on drinks and food the amount that (the department) contributes to ELA's facilities budget."

In his own letter released late last week to newspapers, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield said the department is focusing its research efforts on monitoring and stock assessment that supports commercial and recreational fisheries, as well as aquatic invasive species.

"The department no longer sees the need for government research on whole ecosystem manipulation and looks forward to transferring the facility responsible for that research, the Experimental Lakes Area, to another, more appropriate, research body," he wrote.

The problem, said Schindler, is that there is no such body.

Universities aren't set up to run permanent facilities conducting long-term research. The Tories have cut support to the main federal body that funds such research anyway, he said.

Closure of the Experimental Lakes Area would follow the closure of other federal research facilities and organizations that examine environmental issues, such as the PEARL laboratory on Ellesmere Island and the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.

Schindler referred to a mock advertisement on the CBC's Rick Mercer Report that plugged a product called PMO Pest Control where the targeted pests are scientists.

"(I think) that was probably right on the money," he said.