Canada has a war going on. Usually, when used together, the words “war” and “Canada” conjure up Remembrance Day images of soldiers and trenches. But this? This is a different kind of war, and it’s being waged not on the battlefields of Europe with the military and guns, but in the halls of our academic and federal research institutions with policy and money. Our country’s future is still at stake on many fronts: in the sustainable development of natural resources, maintaining the capacity for ongoing research and development in the basic sciences and medical sciences, and facilitating of long-term data collection and analysis programs in place to provide a foundation for evidence-based policy making.
This is the war on science.
Journalist and author Chris Turner has made this statement in no uncertain terms. His latest book is flat out titled “The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and the Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada.” On Monday, November 25, Turner spoke to an audience largely composed of scientists – many in biology – at the University of Western Ontario. An unfortunate dumping of lake-effect snow on London, Ontario prevented many from attending, but those that did make it to the talk were rewarded with an engaging summary of the state of science in Canada.
Turner outlined three main fronts this war is being fought on: less data collected in the first place, less being done with the data that is collected, and less communication of whatever information makes it through the first two fronts. The final front has been one of the most visible topics since last year, when scientists marched on Parliament Hill protesting the “death of evidence”. A recent report commissioned by the The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada entitled “The Big Chill” investigates the allegations that federal scientists are not only being prevented from speaking about their research, but are being directly instructed to alter or omit information for non-scientific reasons (24% of survey respondents indicated this was the case).
Turner’s background in history revealed some interesting patterns in the relationship between Canadian government and scientific research. Sir Robert Borden, leader of the who served as Prime Minister during the First World War, established the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), from which the university funding arm has shifted to NSERC. Canada has been a signatory of the Montréal Protocol and the Kyoto Protocol, and the home of world renowned long-term environmental research facilities including the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in Northern Ontario and the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Nunavut (yes, a real PEARL station for you LOST fans). Despite setting Canada up as a leader in research, particularly in environmental stewardship, the present state of Canadian research is far from number one. NSERC money has been cut. Canada has stepped out of the Kyoto Protocol. The government has tried to shut down both the ELA and PEARL. And most recently, the Center for Global Development in Washington has ranked Canada dead last out of 27 developed countries for enivronmental protection.
Turner discussed how dire the circumstances must be for normally apolitical scientists to launch a full marching protest. Scientists who would prefer to be spending their time doing science have taken up the fight, including Dr Diane Orihel who took time from completing her PhD to oppose the closing of the ELA, where she performed her fieldwork. Turner also mentioned the meticulous chronological documentation of the government’s campaign against science compiled by John Dupuis, science and engineering librarian at York University.
He stuck around after the talk to sign his book and chat with those of us that had more questions. I asked how the axing of the long-form census fit in with the predominantly environmental theme of the government’s scientific quieting, to which he replied that it was one of the first things on the chopping block and fit in with a whole body of social programming changed or ended that wasn’t touched on in the presentation. In other words, it’s not just the natural sciences that are being dismantled.
In the end, Turner did not offer a solution; rather, his journalistic roots showed by documenting a strong suite of evidence that there is indeed a war on science, flying in the face of the government’s dearth of any evidence at all.