Open Ottawa’s closed door to science


The Canadian government’s relationship with the scientific community is, at best, fractious – the inevitable result of frequent dueling over the meaning of the word ‘evidence’ and, more to the point, its value in the so-called real world.

Members of the Conservative caucus routinely poke academics and researchers, who they suspect harbour left-of-liberal sentiments, sometimes for nothing more than the sheer joy of getting a rise out of them. Careful, Dr. Egghead, your shell might crack.

This, at least, appears to the operating principle behind two recent decisions of the Tory regime – both of which are driving environmentalists and biologist bonkers.

Last year, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced that it would shutter more than half of its regional marine research libraries. The government justified its action – will save a total of $430,000 – on the grounds that taxpayers should not have to shoulder the annual cost of maintaining 11 facilities when six will do.

But, as Gloria Galloway reported in the Globe and Mail on Wednesday, “it was not until (scientists) saw the shelves being cleared, the books and journals being scooped up for free by private companies, and the scientific reports being hauled off to the dumpster that the magnitude of the purge hit home.”

Indeed, former DFO regional director Burton Ayles called it a “loss of historic material.” His peer, Peter Wells, a professor at Dalhousie University, went further.

“I see this situation as a national tragedy, done under the pretext of cost savings, which, when examined closely, will prove to be a false motive,” the Globe quoted him. “A modern democratic society should value its information resources, not reduce, or worse, trash them.”

One letter writer to the Globe carried the flag the following day: “This government says Canadians cannot afford the $430,000 per year required to maintain taxpayer-funded irreplaceable scientific research,” wrote Chris Marriott of Chelsea, Que.

“On the other hand, we find that it was quite willing to spend $20-million a year on the Prime Minister’s personal security (we’ve seen this week how that’s worked out), and tens of millions promoting itself through the Economic Action Plan and Canada Job Grant advertising campaigns. The public money spent on just a handful of Action Plan ads aired during last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs would have more than covered the $430,000 the government says it can’t find to preserve critical scientific research.”

Meanwhile, we learn from the Globe’s Shawn McCarthy that the federal government has told the United Nations that unless Big Oil in Canada curbs its emissions, there’s virtually no chance that this country will come close to meeting its 2009 commitments made at the Copenhagen climate summit.

Instead, according to the article, the report to the UN “talks vaguely about new regulations in its sector-by-sector approach, while adding provinces, businesses and consumers also have a responsibility to address climate change.”

Given that the U.S. government, under the leadership of President Barack Obama, has articulated a thorough plan for reducing emissions in that country – and that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has consistently tied this country’s progress on the issue to that of our neighbour to the south – the disingenuousness in Ottawa these days   fills the air so thickly, it’s hard to breath.

What this crew has against against science or, indeed, any sort of learned discipline is hard to divine. But, it is abundantly clear, from many public pronouncements of many Tory MPs over the years that healthy, vigorous debate in caucus or in the Commons is roundly anathematic to good, representative government – a supposition that is genuinely absurd.

Still, evidence and deliberation, a knowledge of history and an appreciation of nuance, are enemies of political agendas regardless of the ideological underpinnings. No party in this, or any other democratic nation, has a patent on open-mindedness. Sadly, a demonstrable ability to think critically on any given subject long ago dropped off the list of worthy qualifications for a life in public office.

We, the electorate, must either do without or reinvent it in the so-called real world of politics as usual.

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