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Leading Canadian ecologist calls on scientists to recover policy influence

Minnesota-born ecologist David Schindler urges scientists to speak out on matters of public concern.

This much-reproduced image of David Schindler's whole-lake experiment shows the algal bloom that resulted, in just a few weeks time, from adding the nutrient phosphorus to water above the temporary cordon.
Courtesy of David Schindler

It’s easy sometimes to believe that we live in a uniquely cynical, anti-science age when it comes to environmental issues.

The scope and intensity of the climate-change denialists’ campaign, for one example, might make us wish for times when the subjects and the science seemed simpler, and solutions more readily achievable. Times when, say, we scrubbed our power-plant plumes of the pollutants causing acid rain, or banned the phosphate detergents that were causing lakes to bloom with algae, or got the dioxins out of the watery discharges from paper plants.

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Alas, hindsight paints those times in rosier tones than they in fact deserve, as David Schindler made plain in a talk Tuesday evening entitled “Letting the Light In: Providing Environmental Science to Direct Public Policy,” on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

Schindler is a Minnesota-born engineer turned freshwater ecologist, a longtime leader in Canada’s environmental academy in part because his résumé includes deep involvement as a scientist in the battles over acid rain, eutrophication, dioxins and, more recently, the impacts of oil production from the Alberta tar sands.

The ‘merchants of doubt’

At least as far back as the early 1970s, Schindler said, informed policymaking has had to contend with the “merchants of doubt,” as scientific dissemblers have come to be known after the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

David Schindler

Research documenting the recovery of lakes from algae blooms had already demonstrated the role of phosphates in driving this process of eutrophication, and the need to reduce phosphate detergents as a key step toward recovery.

Industry scientists responded, Schindler said, by moving a few data points on a key graphic to reverse the direction of causation — making it seem as if high phosphate levels in ailing lakes were a result, not a cause, of the problem.

“Which is about like claiming that lung cancer produces cigarettes,”  Schindler observed, to great laughter.

Next, they relied on lab tests involving bottles of lake water to show that phosphates couldn’t be causing all the trouble. These results depended an experimental design that omitted a key feature of actual lakes — the ability of algae to draw a limitless supply of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Schindler and colleagues set up a simple, real-life experiment by dividing a natural lake in half, and adding phosphorus to one of the halves. Within weeks, the resulting algal bloom was visible from high overhead — and within three years the Canadian government had banned phosphate detergents and began removing it from sewage discharges.

“We had a federal government, in those days, eager to do the right thing,” Schindler said.

Punishing the messengers

But before long, officials in Ottawa had disbanded Canada’s Fisheries Research Board, which had not only given the world a solution to phosphate-driven destruction of lakes, but an institutional model for conducting government-sponsored science.

And the whole-lake research design created by Schindler and colleagues might have come to an end, too, if not for interest in studying the environmental impacts of a fledgling industry in the far north — extraction of fuels from the bitumen deposits formerly known as tar sands, now renamed by intensive government PR efforts to “oil sands.”

Across the vastness of the world’s second- or third-biggest oil deposit, Schindler said, scientists and science-respecting policymakers are doing endless battle with Alberta politicians, industry spokesmen and other “sunshine boys.”

“That’s what my uncles in small-town Minnesota used to call the local guys who sold Edsels and Studebakers — the people who knew how to blow sunshine into dark places.”

In recent years, he said, the Alberta government has spent more than $20 million to counteract unflattering stories in such radical publications as the National Geographic.

Long list of negative impacts

Although much attention on this side of the national border has focused on the contributions of tar sands oil production to global warming, Schindler said he ranks these only third or fourth in severity on the list of bad environmental impacts including water pollution, boreal forest destruction, biodiversity loss, acid rain and other air pollution problems.

First on the list: “Some 170 square kilometers of tailings ponds, perched over the Athabasca River, some of them as high as 100 meters above it, containing billions of liters of sludge literally too toxic for them to release. It’s been sitting there for up to four decades, and there’s no way they know of to detoxify it … eventually, one of them is going to have a dike breach.”

Government responses to research on pollution associated with oil development has been to conceal inconvenient data, stop financing the researchers who produced it, and attribute negative findings about the industry to foreign-financed environmentalists bent on stopping tar sands oil production as a way of wrecking Canada’s economy.

Little credit for green groups

“In fact, environmental groups haven’t done much to derail oil sands production, in my view,” Schindler said. “Probably, the most listened-to critic is Peter Lougheed, the most popular [Alberta] premier in history, who started the oil sands and now is calling for slowing development.”

Government funds have been used to publish books that paint the industry in a favorable light, he said, and government scientists “have been muzzled and ridiculed. When government scientists now go to meetings, handlers go along to see that they don’t say anything out of line.

“I’ve seen that once before,” Schindler said. “It was with scientists from the former Soviet Union in the early 1970s, and I can tell you that it casts a chill on scientific exchange.”

In Canada now, as in the United States during the George W. Bush administration, “we’ve lost the influence of science in policy and we need to get it back,” Schindler said.

How can that be done?

Encourages scientists to speak out

Part of the answer lies in reversing years of organizational and policy changes that have marginalized science and its practitioners, Schindler said, but part also lies in individual scientists finding the personal courage to speak out on matters of public concern, from a viewpoint of personal involvement, and to become more skilled in speaking directly to a public that may lack for scientific training but not for deep concern.

“I don’t think scientists should hesitate to reveal their intuition” about the potential implications of their work, he said. “And I probably differ from at least 50 percent of scientists on this.

“But I think that someone who works in a field is going to have better intuition than anyone else,” and should find in that the courage to speak out on issues of the day.

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Schindler’s presentation was accompanied by 119 slides, including a terrific selection of editorial cartoons on the tar sands and government censorship; both a video of his talk and the slides can be viewed here. His talk was sponsored by The Freshwater Society and the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences.