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Turning a blind eye to science

Scientists, journalists, and activists unite against Harper’s “War on Science”

Government control over communication between scientists and the public, closure of libraries, and shutting down of research areas – no, this is not the start of an Orwellian novel, but a description of the climate of science in Canada today.

Last Tuesday, scientists and non-scientists gathered at Redpath Museum to hear and discuss the issues pertaining to the Harper government’s “war on science.” The panellists were Chris Turner, author of the book The War on Science, Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, an advocacy group for the transparent use of science, and Mike De Souza, a freelance environment and science journalist.

The audience’s distaste for Harper was evident – audible groans could be heard in response to the description of the Conservatives’ recent atrocities against science; applause followed statements about ridding Canada of Harper and his policies.

The Conservative government has been particularly adamant about turning a blind eye to climate change.

Environmental science has been at the front lines of Harper’s “War on Science.” The Conservative government has been particularly adamant about turning a blind eye to climate change. In June 2012, the Harper government passed the omnibus bill C-38 – cleverly dubbed the “Jobs, Growth, and Long-term Prosperity Act,” which struck a huge blow to environmental protection and research. It imposed restrictions on reporting environmental effects and weakened habitat and species protection while easing the process for approving new pipelines.

Since 2012, the government has gutted environmental agencies and research centres responsible for gathering important data that often provide damning evidence against many of the Conservative government’s economic plans. They stripped funding from the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas, and Energy Research, the one agency responsible for environmental assessments for offshore drilling. The National Round Table on Environment and the Economy, an independent policy agency aimed at discussing sustainable development, has also since been abolished.The Experimental Lakes Area, the world’s leading freshwater research centre, also lost its federal funding, but was later saved by the provincial governments of Ontario and Manitoba.

And it doesn’t stop there. Environment Canada’s recent report on financial plans has revealed that it plans to cut spending from $1.01 billion in 2014-15 to $698.9 million in 2016-17. Meanwhile, Environment Canada’s projections indicate that Canada will not meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 – in fact, current measures show that emission levels have remained almost unchanged. To top it off, the National Energy Board approved the Enbridge Line 9 pipeline reversal earlier this month – a decision opposed by critics who argue this will put communities at risk and threaten water supplies and surrounding wildlife.

“The idea is simple and straightforward – to make Canada the most attractive country for resource investment and development.”

Chris Turner, author of “War on Science”

This trend of ignoring inconvenient scientific evidence arguably began much earlier than the current Conservative government. The cod fishery collapse from over two decades ago provided what Turner called a “sneak preview” of what the relationship between science and the government has become today.

The Grand Banks of Newfoundland, once overflowing with fish, were nearly depleted in the early 1990s. Between 1960-75, large scale fisheries collected the same amount of fish as the previous 250 years combined. During this time, previously ‘arms-length’ governmental bodies – developed by Mulroney and the last Conservative government – began to mesh with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. This meant that the science would be ‘massaged’ by bureaucrats before getting to the policy level – which prevented the much-needed reductions in quotas, ultimately leading to the collapse of the cod fishery. “The lesson should have been that whatever you’re going to do, get the science right […] what the current government seems to have learned is that if there are bodies [that] keep coming up with evidence you don’t like, get rid of them,” said Turner.

Science in Canada has largely become about progress and prosperity rather than curiosity and discovery. This has been made clear by the recent shifts in federal funding to industry-friendly areas of research, and the incentives to increase collaboration with industry partners. The National Research Council has undergone restructuring to shift focus from basic science to applied science, introducing a concierge service for industries seeking resources for growth. A recent announcement was made by the National Research Council that $50,000 vouchers would be given out for industry research through their Industrial Research Assistance Program. “The idea is simple and straightforward – to make Canada the most attractive country for resource investment and development,” Turner told the audience.

“Once journalists mention a term like ‘oilsands,’ requests will automatically be filtered by the government.”

Mike De Souza, freelance environment and science journalist

Canadian scientists have begun to publicly speak out against Harper and his policies. This year, scientists gathered in “Stand Up for Science” rallies all across Canada; however, frustration is mounting as no visible improvements are being made. According to Gibbs, part of the problem is that scientists are not always willing to talk to the media, she claimed that “Often they’ll self-censor themselves […] There is a culture of fear that’s going to be hard to overcome.”

These fears are not unfounded – the government has implemented strict communication policies to control the information flowing from scientists to the media. Journalists are unable to talk to government scientists without going through communications officers, who are often present during interviews, and will stop scientists from sharing sensitive information. “Once journalists mention a term like ‘oilsands,’ requests will automatically be filtered by the government,” says De Souza. A telling audio recording of an interview between David Tarasick, a government scientist, in the presence of a media relations officer, and De Souza, is posted on Youtube. In it, Tarasick says, “I’m only available when media relations say I’m available.”

Even if Harper’s policies are reversed, some of the damage incurred by the Conservatives is permanent. There will be gaps in long form census, loss in data from shuttered research centres, and the loss of scientists who could not do research due to funding cuts.

There are many issues that Canada will face in the coming years, but climate change is the biggest and most pressing issue. In order to develop solutions, the government’s policies must consider the evidence presented by scientists. The cod fishery collapse serves as an example of what will happen if we do not. If we fail to address the environmental issues of our time, we will have a much bigger problem on our hands.