Diane Orihel was conducting research at the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area in Northern Ontario when the federal government cut its funding in May 2012. At the time she was a PhD student at the University of Alberta and says “we were all simply floored” upon hearing the announcement.
“It’s the most powerful research platform we have to understand human impacts on lakes and fish populations. It was just mind-boggling that the government decided that this was an expendable budget item and decided to shut it down.”
Despite having no experience in advocacy, she sprang into action, writing press releases, contacting media and government officials, gathering volunteers and eventually creating the Coalition to Save the ELA. The reaction was positive. “It was very overwhelming,” she says. “I had no idea it would take off like it did. I was amazed by the generosity, the kindness and support that we received from Canadians.” So busy was she with her activism that she put off writing her thesis – although she did finally finish and successfully defend it this past fall.
Communicating science to the public and advocating on issues of public importance are “moral responsibilities” for scientists, she contends. “We need to foster a culture of science advocacy in Canada.”
Dr. Orihel was initially worried her activism might hurt her career prospects, but no longer feels that way. “If it’s done right, advocacy can benefit your career,” she says, noting that she has gained valuable communications experience by giving keynote speeches and appearing in the national media. She also received several accolades, including a science promotion award from the heads of Canadian universities’ biology departments. After she was profiled in the magazine Nature, “I started to get people from all over offering me postdocs, as far as Brazil.”
Dr. Orihel recently started a contract with Environment Canada, so “I’m going to have to scale back my advocacy work,” she says. “I’m looking forward to getting back to doing science.”
The ELA, meanwhile, remains in limbo. There have been negotiations to transfer its operations to the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development. However, a final agreement remains elusive; all experiments have been halted and in early December the ELA’s remaining scientists received letters declaring their positions surplus.