Harper Government’s Disdain For Science

In recent years, science in Canada has come up against an increasing disdain for evidence-based decision making and a disappearing commitment to transparency. In brief, evidence-based policy-making in Canada is under attack and it is orchestrated by our own federal government.

In the absence of evidence, government policy is increasingly originating from ideological considerations. The abandonment of the long-form census in 2011, for example. No longer do Canadians have key social and economic data necessary to make well-informed public policy. There is sparse data upon which to base government policy decisions that involve the spending of millions (if not billions) of taxpayer dollars. The result is decision-making based on incomplete information that may lead to government waste, sometimes on a large scale.

This month, the ramifications of decision-making based on knee-jerk ideology as opposed to solid facts and figures hit home to the tune of almost $1.5 billion. On July 16, 2012, the Minister for Public Safety Vic Toews announced the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) would return $1.48 billion in funding to the Government of Canada. The additional number of offenders expected to result from the government’s new tough-on-crime legislation – including the Truth in Sentencing Act – failed to materialize as the Minister indicated. While projections pegged the inmate population at growing to almost 17,725 by June 2012, the actual figure was 14,965. As a result, CSC will return the funding originally allocated to support this increased offender population.

As worrying as the government’s spurious allocation of a billion and a half dollars on CSC expenditures may be, it is in the sciences where the government’s reliance on fiction over fact is most glaringly apparent. The government has made it official policy to gag scientists. Government scientists now have to be cleared by public affairs officials in Ottawa before they can speak to the media. Scientists have been so tightly gagged that media coverage of climate change issues has plummeted more than 80 per cent since 2007. (Compare this to the United States National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, which adopted a scientific integrity policy in January 2012. The U.S. government policy permits American scientists to speak about their work to anyone at any time.)

Then there was Kyoto. In December 2011, Canada formally withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. In doing so, the Conservative Government abandoned the world’s only legally binding plan to tackle global warming and to save the planet.

This year, the federal government’s attack on science reached a new low. The government is now putting the very water Canadians drink and rely on at risk. In June 2012, the government announced the planned closure of the Experimental Lake Area (ELA) research station in northwestern Ontario that produces data critical to combating acid rain and phosphate pollution in lake water. The ELA is Canada’s only outdoor laboratory for scientists studying how to protect the country’s freshwater lakes. Without government funding, the research station will close in 2013. It was of importance not only to Canada. The ELA was the only facility in the world that allowed scientists to observe how entire ecosystems are affected by lake water pollution. Experiments at the facility included the dumping of acid, toxic metals and phosphorus to observe the effects on water and the surrounding environment. Defunding the ELA is a loss to the world and is a smear upon Canada’s reputation as a world leader in water conservation.

The funding cut to the ELA is one Canada’s scientific community can ill afford. By G7 standards, Canada’s investment in science was already low. Now it is perilously low. In 2006, Statistics Canada stated that Canada’s gross expenditure on research and development in science and technology was 1.9 per cent of gross national product (GDP).

On July 10, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) attended a rally on Parliament Hill. Thousands of scientists, academics and concerned citizens protested the cuts to science programs. While funding cuts at the forefront included the impending loss of Ontario’s ELA research station, other changes are also cause for alarm. Last month, Canada’s Fisheries Act – which has protected our fish stock for 35 years – was replaced with a new, looser regulatory regime. The new law creates defenses for polluters and significantly expands the scope for discretionary decisions by the Minister and staff of Fisheries and Oceans Canada as they make regulatory approvals. The changes will significantly undermine Canada’s ability to protect national fisheries now and in the future.

The cuts made by the Canadian government that protect core natural resources on which Canada’s economy is founded is of grave concern to PIPSC. In less than 12 months, the government of Canada continued to gag its own scientists, defunded a research facility of international importance and failed to ratify the world’s primary climate change agreement. In doing so, it has not only undermined Canada’s natural resources for future generations but smeared Canada’s international reputation.