Science needs to be given credence as well as cash

As Canadian scientists look forward to a better deal under a new regime, respect for their findings is as vital as fair funding

January 7, 2016
Canadian maple leaf and laboratory test tubes

If the Paris climate change talks that took place before Christmas taught us anything, it is that even those countries that have been running very hard for the past two decades are ultimately unable to hide from the scientific consensus.

Even traditional wreckers of climate deals have finally accepted that a rise in global temperatures of much more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will lead to disaster.

Whether Canada would have signed up to the deal had former prime minister Stephen Harper been in power is open to question.

As our cover feature this week sets out, the Conservative regime seemed to many scientists to be actively antagonistic to science in general and climate science in particular.

The collective sigh of relief from scientists when Harper was drop-kicked out of office last October was testament to the enormous frustration that had built up.

The charge list includes moves to put a greater emphasis on commercialisation of research, and an 8 per cent real-terms decline in the budget for Canada’s research councils.

But the most detested policy of all was the requirement for government scientists to seek official permission before speaking to the press.

What is interesting is that the heat generated by this policy is somewhat disproportionate to the number of people directly affected by it. Since academics at Canadian universities, unlike those in some countries, are not civil servants, they remained free to speak out.

Yet the policy was seen as emblematic of the Harper government’s anti-science agenda, which many regarded as connected to its support for Canada’s oil industry, centred on the tar sands in Alberta (Harper’s power base), which climate scientists regard as particularly dirty in environmental terms.

It was that, above all things, that led scientists to protest outside the Canadian Parliament in 2012 under the banner “no science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy”.

The reference to democracy is instructive. It is often remarked that one of the reasons that democracy has not turned out to be the panacea that the West hoped it would be in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq is that the benefits attributed to democracy – effective and enlightened government – depend not just on people going out to vote but also on their forming and supporting parties that aspire to benefit the whole country, rather than just one factional interest group.

In a roughly parallel way, you could say that respecting science is about more than just delivering a decent funding settlement and refraining from micromanaging how it is distributed (the fabled Haldane principle). It is also about respecting its findings and incorporating them into policy, rather than ignoring them or – as some believe the Canadian government was seeking to do – actively burying them.

In other words, governments need decent chief scientific advisers, as well as science ministers with the ear of the Treasury. In that sense, the Harper government’s decision to do without a chief scientist may be seen as particularly telling.

If politics trumps science, then we are in a world of trouble whoever’s in office. Global warming may open up the fabled Northwest Passage and lower heating bills in Toronto, but, as Paris delegates agreed, that would be scant consolation in a planet racked by floods, droughts and conflict.

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