Science Under Harper

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With a mandate from less than 40 percent of Canadians, our government is destroying an invaluable national asset

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is actively opposed to science – at least any science that conflicts with its industry-driven agenda.

The government’s attack on science began with the muzzling of federal scientists a year after Harper became Prime Minister in 2006. It has continued with massive funding cuts to basic research and the closure of world-renowned science facilities.

In 2007, the Harper government introduced rules prohibiting Environment Canada scientists from speaking to the media without permission from high level government officials.

It was a shrewd move by a tar sands-obsessed government. The new rules promptly resulted in a dramatic reduction in reporting on global warming by the Canadian media.

Reportedly, even senior government scientists frequently had (and still do) to obtain nearly line-by-line bureaucratic approval of their written responses to reporters’ questions. Those questions must now be submitted in writing. Gone are the days of timely interviews without interference by government minders. As documented by Carol Linnett last year in the journal Academic Matters, there have even been outright bans on scientists speaking to the media about important research findings, such as frightening, but well-founded predictions of the effects of global warming and signs that Canada’s salmon populations are collapsing

Lately, it has gotten even worse. Early last year, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans decided that internal research will from now on be confidential unless and until the department decides it should be released to the public.

If Harper’s intent has been to discourage reporters – typically saddled with same-day deadlines – from keeping us abreast of what Canadian scientists are discovering about pollution, climate change and other issues of national interest, the policy has been a success.

All of this is pretty amazing from a government that came to office claiming it would be the most transparent of administrations. Looking back, Orwellian might be a generous characterization of their promise.

Harper High-reslighterfeatureThere is no longer a single scientist in Canada with direct, official access to the cabinet. In 2008, when National Science Advisor Arthur Carty retired, Harper chose not to replace him. Instead, he eliminated the office altogether. The purpose of the office had been to advise the government on science and technology and on the effective use of government resources in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and applications. Now the cabinet is fully shielded from such expert counsel.

Important science programs are gone, too. The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy has been eliminated. Ditto for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science. Last year, the Experimental Lakes Area – the Northwestern Ontario site of pioneering research on such important issues as acid rain and fertilizer runoff – was also slated for closure. Housing for its resident scientists was being rapidly dismantled. Were it not for last-minute intervention by the governments of Ontario and Manitoba and by Winnipeg’s International Institute for Sustainable Development, there would be no Experimental Lakes Area today. Except now the Area is seriously hobbled; the doors are open, but conducting the most important research that used to be done there is now illegal.

In my view, the criminals are certainly not the scientists.

The attack continues. In the last several months, the federal government has closed down seven major libraries of environmental science. There were only eleven to start with.

We’re told these libraries, focused on fish and oceans, were shut down to save money and because the public did not use them. Both claims are disingenuous. In the first place, these are specialized scientific libraries. Of course, most of the public does not have a direct interest in using them.

On the other point, total savings, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, amount to $443,000 per year. This sum is dwarfed by the money the government wasted just last year upgrading one of the same libraries it now has closed.

As investigative journalist Andrew Nikiforuk reports in The Tyee, this latter library in St Andrews, New Brunswick was used by Rachel Carson in researching her seminal classic, Silent Spring. Ominously, the contaminant research program at the research station served by that library has now been eliminated, too. No longer will we investigate the effects of chemical spills and runoff on ocean life and the environment.

According to Nikiforuk’s contacts, the closures were chaotic. Little or no effort was made to retrieve books on loan from at least one of the libraries or to salvage dumpsters full of books and periodicals at another.

All of this is just a sampling of what has been cut. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has enumerated more of the damage on their website.

It’s not hard to imagine what these cuts are about. As Chris Turner notes in his book, The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada was unable to complete a required environmental assessment of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline. Harper’s cuts had hobbled the department too severely.

If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re right: Harper’s attack on science has focused mainly on environmental science. It makes sense, given his clear determination to expand the environmentally disastrous Alberta tar sands.

Other branches of science have been seriously impacted, too. More than ever before, the emphasis in areas as diverse as molecular biology and physics is on serving industry rather than funding basic research that benefits society as a whole.

There are areas of science and technology that the Harper government wholeheartedly supports. The recent revelation by Edward Snowden that Canada’s international spy agency secretly surveilled every person who used wifi in a major Canadian airport and tracked them for two weeks thereafter is a sign of just what our government thinks science is good for.

The old adage that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance holds true. For this government, being vigilant of Canadians in airports would seem to be more important than standing guard against pollution and mass ecological damage.

Harper’s attack on science has very serious implications. Water supplies will be poisoned, whole ecosystems destroyed (the Alberta tar sands alone cover an area the size of Florida). And if the tar sands, shale gas and coal are exploited to anywhere even approaching their full capacity, we can look forward to a hellishly heated earth. Millions, likely billions, of humans – and many more animals – will suffer and die. All, really, for a quick buck.

The current government was elected on the basis of 38.6 percent of the vote. Basic scientific standards would require that the minimum precondition for democratic rule is the consent of the majority of those ruled.

Canada desperately needs a more representative system of government. One where no government can hold such power on the basis of far less than a majority of the vote.

Sure, a government elected by an actual majority might also act against the interests of the majority. I think, though, that the majority of Canadians are better than that. A majority of Canadians would never elect a government of such low moral standards.


Dave SteelewebDavid Steele is an award-winning molecular biologist and President of Earthsave Canada. 


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