Canada and the ‘war on science’

Stephen Harper’s government is accused of ‘muzzling’ federal scientists at a time of concern over funding. Is it time for more academics to speak out?

November 20, 2014

Before he entered politics, Stephen Harper trained as an economist. It was perhaps prophetic that the Canadian prime minister decided to enter a field widely known as the “dismal science”: these days, his relationship with those practising most other types of science grows progressively more dismal by the day.

It has been claimed that since 2009, Harper’s Conservative government has laid off more than 2,000 federally employed scientists. Numerous programmes devoted to the monitoring of climate change, food inspection, water quality and oil spills have been cancelled. In September, hundreds of scientists in lab coats marched on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in protest, even going so far as to hold a mock funeral to mark “the death of evidence”.

Claims that federally employed scientists cannot communicate freely with the public are widespread. Last month, an open letter from the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, signed by 800 scientists from 32 countries outside Canada, called on the Canadian government to “restore government science funding, and the freedom and opportunities to communicate these findings internationally”.

These concerns mainly affect government scientists, but academics are deeply involved in the issue as well. The complaints by scholars are striking, given that Canada has been known in the past for its strong commitment to post-secondary school funding.

‘Shut out’ of the boardroom

“Canada ranks first among G7 countries for our support of research and development at universities, colleges and research institutes,” Ed Holder, minister of state (science and technology) points out.

Holder also says that since Harper took power in 2006, the government has provided more than C$11 billion (£6.2 billion) in support of scientific research, with a new C$1.5 billion fund in the offing. He notes Canada’s recent university-based successes in such varied areas as cancer research, at McGill University in Montreal, and lithium battery development, at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Some in academia, however, question the decision-making process with respect to how such money is allocated. Academic scientists depend largely on funding from a group of agencies known as the Tri-Councils, and “if you look at the composition of their boards, there are fewer and fewer academic people involved now”, says Sylvain Schetagne of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. “The programmes are more market-driven. The danger here is that the allocation of money is not decided by the scientific community, but by administrators for political reasons.”

Environmental researchers appear to be the most affected by the prime minister’s policies. Some have claimed that the economic interests of Harper, who pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, are to blame. Negative research findings, it has been suggested, might aid critics of the hugely lucrative oil sands industry in Alberta and a controversial proposal to pump crude oil to a series of US refineries via pipeline.

“It’s clear that environmental scientists are lumped right down there with Greenpeace in [the government’s] view”, said David Schindler, a professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, in an interview with Maclean’s magazine last year.

Margrit Eichler, president of campaign group Scientists for the Right to Know, concurs that academics should be very concerned.

“There isn’t a clear-cut separation between government and academic scientists, because there’s always been cooperation,” she says.

Eichler, emeritus professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, points out that those working in social as well as applied science have been hurt by Harper’s policies, citing his cancellation of the national long-form census as particularly detrimental, in that it will prevent (among other things) the collection of solid data on income inequality. “Once you have interrupted monitoring services, that’s a gap that will never be filled,” she says.

Indeed, David Hulchanski, who teaches urban planning at the University of Toronto, says he spent five years creating a tool to track urban poverty that was completely dependent on data from the cancelled census. “My research has been turned into a historical project,” he recently lamented in the Toronto Star.

Then there’s the charge of muzzling. If government scientists are less free under the Harper regime to communicate their findings, does the same apply to those in academia?

Andrew Leach, a professor of energy policy at the University of Alberta, says no. As an academic funded by a Tri-Council grant, “not only are you completely free to talk to the media, you are encouraged to talk to the media. If you don’t include a [public engagement] plan in your grant application, you’re not eligible.”

But while he believes that academics should be free to speak out, Leach says that it’s only fair that their colleagues in the government operate under different restrictions; untrammelled openness from them, he believes, might very well skew the process of policy development.

Thus it is largely academics who are speaking out: not only about their research findings, but against what many of them contend is a war on science.

“This is part of an entire attack on civil society which really damages our democracy,” claims Eichler. “We need an informed electorate, in order to be able to hold the government accountable to work for us.”

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