Flying Blind: An Interview with Former Federal Scientist Michael Arts

Carla Hustak recently interviewed environmental scientist and Ryerson University professor, Michael Arts about his experience with the Harper government’s cuts, restrictions on the communications of his findings, and, finally, the loss of his job at Environment Canada.
Michael Arts is part of the the research team studying the jellification of lakes. Reduced calcium availability in Ontario lakes is hindering the survival of aquatic organisms with high calcium requirements, leading to the rising dominance of nutrient-poor, jelly-clad animals.

Carla Hustak recently interviewed environmental scientist and Ryerson University professor, Michael Arts. Arts has been the subject of considerable media attention for his experience with the Harper government’s cuts, restrictions on the communications of his findings, and, finally, the loss of his job at Environment Canada. Much of the media hype around Arts, however, has largely focused on what happened to Arts in the last few years at Environment Canada. Amid much of this media coverage, what seems to have gotten lost is the specific nature of Arts’s research on fatty acids, why his findings are important to Canadians’ well-being, and what kind of message it sends when the Harper Government shuts down this work.

Arts’s Work: What Fatty Acids Tell Us About Human & Environmental Health

Arts and I began the interview discussing his impressive research career on investigating fatty acids in freshwater and marine ecosystems; an interest that emerged from his love of nature, lakes, camping, and cell biology. When I asked why study fatty acids in particular to assess environmental change? Arts explained that fatty acids are “good bio-indicators. They could be indicators of stress, indicators of previous feeding conditions, indicators of what is really linked to climate change.” Moreover, fatty acids are “good bio-markers of where the carbon in most plants have gone.” Having done a number of studies on predator-prey relations, Arts explained that, “One of the repercussions of an invasive species is that you can use those fatty acids to track repercussions through the food web and track where the carbon goes in addition to where the contaminants go.” As such, an organism’s fatty acid composition is also a map of environmental conditions. Looking at muscle tissue, for example, can tell you “the kind of environment a fish experienced in the last couple of months.” Arts’s research has been critical for showing how human health is contingent upon climate change and ecological relations with wildlife.
In response to my query as to what Arts considered the most important insights of his career, he highlighted what his work tells us about global warming. He indicated the crucial importance of paying attention to the interdependency between human and wildlife needs for fatty acids and the importance of a healthy environment to supply those needs. Arts described the stakes of his research and his concern for the well-being of Canadians:

“So one of the things I’m really concerned with now is this whole issue of climate change and what will warming temperatures do to the composition of fatty acids globally. So that is a concern that water temperatures will increasingly decrease the composition of two essential fatty acids: one which is very good for cardiovascular health and the other one that is more related to the central nervous system and brain function, particularly intelligence in vertebrates. Our brains have very high levels of that fatty acid called DHA. And we get a lot of it from eating seafood, shellfish that have DHA but those fish in turn get it from the aquatic environment from freshwater which is in turn produced by algae. And algae are very sensitive to temperature in water and produce less of EPA, DHA when water temperatures go up. So, one of my most important contributions is getting people to start thinking about the production of these two bio-chemicals on a global basis.”

Arts identified a second major contribution in his work on the risk-benefit analysis of consuming fish which has taken the form of a food-guide to help to gauge the safe consumption of fish from specific lakes. Arts emphasized that the guide will bring a more balanced assessment to consuming fish, addressing both contaminant levels in addition to levels of fatty acids. Commenting on how biotech industries have capitalized on the environmental damage to natural sources of fatty acids, Arts highlighted how healthy fatty acid composition is becoming another marker that differentiates the “affluent we” from others. Arts indicated that “a company called Martek BioScience has several patents on using algae in heterotrophic environments to make EPA and DHA in a very concentrated form which we can ingest for our health. That is great but I would say there is a binary disjunct or association between us and the other vertebrates on the planet that don’t have access to all those technologies.” For Arts, “the real concern is what is going to happen on a global basis to vertebrates dependent on those compounds when the conditions of the planet change and things become warmer. And a warm world is not a friendly world for DHA and EPA.”

Over the course of a 22 year career at Environment Canada, Arts has made significant contributions to the depths of our understanding of fatty acids and environmental health, ranging from studies on the fatty acid profiles of polar bears and sharks as bio-monitors, the reproductive tradeoffs of maternal fish in healthy vs. unhealthy environments, the sperm quality of fish as a mark of DHA levels, the use of fatty acid analysis to detect herbicides, the ‘jellification’ of lakes, and the relationship between arboreal cover and aquatic lake fatty acid composition. Arts and I discussed some of the highlights of these studies. In the case of the fatty acid profiling of polar bears and sharks, Arts indicated that their diets as predators provide crucial data on environmental shifts; lower EPA and DHA content highlight a decline in sea ice which is essential for the growth of diatoms, a group of algae rich in EPA and DHA. On the subject of reproductive tradeoffs, Arts has also studied the eggs of fish and birds to determine the ways wildlife negotiate investments in offspring with poor nutritional resources in the environment. Arts also developed the technique of mass spectrometry, using fatty acids to detect the presence of herbicides which, previously, could not be detected with water samples. Arts explained how he arrived at using fatty acids to gauge the presence of herbicides:

“We all know that herbicides are in agricultural areas so to get a no detect, does that mean that there’s nothing there or that your test wasn’t sensitive enough to detect it or that you took the test at the wrong time or you could have looked at the wrong material. So maybe you looked at water when you should have been looking at something else to see if that herbicide was there. So I thought well let’s look at the properties of the herbicides. So, some of the herbicides I looked at dissolved in lipid.   I knew they were attracted to lipid and dissolved in lipid. So we decided to focus on that feature and use the animals that were in the wetlands that we knew had little lipid droplets.”

More recently, Arts’s work has turned to ‘jellification’ and arboreal lakes. Arts noted that the phenomenon of ‘jellification’; that is, the displacement of daphnia by Holopedium, an invasive species with a jellied shell have important implications for human and fish fatty acid compositions. Arts indicated that “Daphnia have a lot more calcium than Holopedium does. And Holopedium is a lot harder to eat because it’s covered in that jelly. When you see that happening over large geographic areas in Ontario and Nova Scotia then it’s cause for concern.” Moreover, “something like 40% of Ontarians get their drinking water from lakes or reservoirs. And if those lakes or reservoirs are filled with a creature covered in jelly, then the water intakes for the reservoir may become clogged or need frequent cleaning so there’s a cost to society.” In the case of his work on arboreal forests, Arts has indicated the importance of trees for providing shade over lakes and cooler conditions which are more conducive to the production of fatty acids.

Given the scope and value of Arts’s findings in educating us about the state of human and environmental health, what conditions made this work possible in a long career with Environment Canada? And, perhaps more importantly, what changed when the Harper Government came to power to bring his career to an abrupt end with Environment Canada?

Being a Scientist Under the Harper Government

From my conversation with Arts, I gained valuable insight into how the life of a federal scientist has dramatically changed in the Harper years. To my question of how the practice of science has changed under the Harper Government, Arts cited two critical changes. First, he noted the altered relations between the federal government and federal scientists and, second the shift in the direction of research funding and priorities.

Arts on the Changing Government-Scientist Relationship:

“Well, I think I see many things. One of them is that I notice there is an increase in control of science in the government. When I was a government scientist in the 1990s, I found that it was more collegial. It was more about managers interacting with scientists in a collegial way to decide what the next directions would be. But increasingly over time it became top down heavy where you were being told what to do rather than your opinion being solicited. And which to me is completely backwards because, I would argue, why would you hire experts and then not listen to them.”

Arts on the Shift in Funding: Defunding Blue Sky Research, Funding Industry Research

“And then the other thing that I’ve noticed is a really strong emphasis on science that is very applied and industry-focused. It used to be that there was a balance. Some people worked on very applied things directly related to industry needs and then there were other scientists who did more blue-sky research. The thing about blue sky research is that it is very important because you have no way of knowing if what sounds like a crazy idea in 2015, could result in the most amazing discovery in 2017. And there’s no way to predict that. But you cut that off and force more people to do industry-related science by shaping the funding. Scientists have to go where the funding is.”

Arts and I also discussed the implications of Harper’s various cuts to environmental monitoring programs, the closures of laboratories, and the dismissals of scientists in terms of the loss of scientific data and the significantly diminished capacity for Canadian scientists to contribute to the international scientific community. Arts explained that “You’re losing infrastructure, you’re losing people, you’re losing equipment, you’re losing capacity. So that’s got to have a negative effect on the government’s ability to deliver on the science that Canadians want.” On the subject of the cuts to Arctic monitoring programs, Arts highlighted how this would impede our ability to even test the effectiveness of a particular remediation process. As Arts pointed out, “you can’t see what’s going on. That’s the thing, we’re flying blind without these monitoring programs.”

The Future for Environmental Science in Canada

Arts is optimistic that, despite radical cuts and closures, the infrastructure for practicing science in Canada can be rebuilt. So, what would it take? Arts highlighted the need for a better relationship between the government and federal scientists: one marked by “making things more open, more collegial.” It would also take different commitments than those currently espoused by the Harper Government. As Arts emphasized, “I wouldn’t block blue sky science because I think that is really going to generate the kinds of discoveries we need in the future.” And what in particular might be those kinds of discoveries? Arts stressed his personal opinion that Canada needs to invest in renewable sources of energy such as tidal energy and solar energy. He believes that “it’s an investment in Canada’s future. Do we want to invest in a technology that is proven to be causing problems on the planet or do we want to try to invest in a technology that will make those problems go away or, at least, be reduced. To me, that is not a complicated question.”


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