Whatever Happened to the Voice of Reason? Harper’s War on Science | By Alan Shapiro

Sometimes, it feels as if we live in the Dark Ages. Just yesterday morning, Galileo was declared a heretic for daring to propose that the Earth orbited the Sun. Somewhere amid the intervening centuries (which saw much of the world embrace the ideals of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason) Canada’s political clock drifted awry, time starting to flow ever so slowly in reverse.

Since his ascension to the throne of political majority in 2011, Stephen Harper has redefined the playing field for research in Canada, and not for the better. Under Harper’s direction, the government has embarked on a campaign to suppress any science that might challenge its policies, through targeted cutbacks to research funding and muzzling of government scientists. Political commentator Allan Gregg argues that Harper’s agenda has been to reshape the very institution of democracy. Gregg states that Harper’s actions have marked a “deliberate attempt to obliterate … research, science and evidence as the basis to make policy decisions … and eliminate anyone who might use science, facts and evidence to challenge government policies.”

The past three years have seen a rather disconcerting timeline of events. In July 2010, the government withdrew the previously mandatory long-form census, a critical source of demographic information for social scientists and planners across the country, in favour of a minimalist alternative. The census had, to that point, played a crucial role in mapping the roots of unemployment and social welfare. In 2012, the omnibus budget bill singlehandedly spelled the beginning of the end for science in Canada. The budget brought crippling cuts to Statistics Canada, Parks Canada, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Organizations such as the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, the First Nations Statistical Institute, and the National Science Advisor, were disbanded completely while the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science and ozone and water monitoring networks faced austere reductions. The Experimental Lakes Area, a world-class research initiative that played a critical role in our understanding and management of acid rain and lake eutrophication was also dropped from the budget, although the 50 million dollar price tag to dismantle the facility dwarfed its 2 million a year operating cost.

The cuts are appalling not only in their magnitude but also in their structure. Harper’s newfound vehicle of choice – the omnibus bill – bundles dozens of unrelated items into a single package, precluding any one item from the intense scrutiny and opposition of the democratic process. In this same package, the government quietly repealed the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act that bound Canada to carbon emissions targets as set out in the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The final blow came not at home but abroad, with Canada becoming the only United Nations member to withdraw from the UN Treaty to Combat Desertification in March 2013, damaging both its national interests and international reputation.

Harper’s war on science has been anything but subtle. In March of this year, the Conservative Party unanimously voted down an NDP motion that affirmed the importance of scientific research in policy-making amid a torrent of cheers and applause. It read as follows:

  1. Public science, basic research, and the free and open exchange of scientific information are essential to evidence-based policy-making

  2. Federal government scientists must be enabled to discuss openly their findings with their colleagues and the public

  3. The government should maintain support for its basic scientific capacity across Canada, including immediately extending funding, until a new operator is found, to the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area Research Facility to pursue its unique research program

The government’s vote then, quite literally, was against science and basic research, and by association against the rights of citizens to access facts and evidence and form their own conclusions.

These actions have not passed unnoticed in the scientific community. Several articles in Nature, perhaps the world’s most prestigious scientific journal, have criticized the government from barring federal scientists from discussing their findings. One article notes that “researchers who once would have felt comfortable responding freely and promptly to journalists are now required to direct inquiries to a media-relations office, which demands written questions in advance, and might not permit scientists to speak”. This stands in stark contrast to the United States and United Kingdom, which emphasize unrestricted flow of scientific knowledge. The Canadian Science Writers Association has sent an open letter to Harper urging him to stop censorship of scientific findings. In a never-before-seen move, 2,000 scientists donned lab coats and protested at Parliament Hill in July 2012. They blamed Harper for pulling the nation into a worrying trend of “decision-based evidence making”. Recently, the Ontario government, in recognition of the importance of the Experimental Lakes Area research, has offered to put up the funding necessary for its continued operation.

I am neither a historian nor a political scientist, and yet it seems to me that there are lessons from our past that we have tossed rather carelessly aside. The scientific method, freedom of speech, and public education were built by generations of visionaries who understood that the only path to progress lay in empowering people; in a democratic nation, citizens should have the right to access information and form their own judgment, not subject to selective censorship by the party in power. The Harper government’s poorly veiled agenda is a direct assault on science, and with it an attempt to undermine the capacity of the population to critically analyze political policies and hold the government accountable. Allan Gregg presents a rather disturbing parallel between Harper’s Canada and George Orwell’s 1984, where the government has gone so far in their control of information that the citizens have been deprived of nothing less than their right to think. Orwell’s dystopia may be a far cry, but it is an audible warning, lest we continue to stand idly by as the institution of science in Canada is eroded into ruin.

CC photography courtesy of dicktay2000 on Flickr.

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