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Bookends: The dangers of gagging scientists and other public servants January 1, 2014

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Bookends: The dangers of gagging scientists and other public servants

By Dan Davidson

November 6, 2013

– 950 words –

The War on Science

 

The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada

By

Greystone Books

176 pages

$14.40

 

As a journalist covering technological and environmental stories, Chris Turner found himself wanting to look for the positive side of these topics. It was not that there wasn’t any bad news to cover, or that he didn’t provide surveys of just what the bad news was. It was that he wanted to focus on possible solutions to problems, and that he was able to find them in various places all around the world. It seemed to him that a good many nations were taking the issue of climate change quite seriously and were making efforts to deal with it.

Our own country, previously seen as being a supporter of such efforts, now seems to be the poster child for denial.

That is perhaps the biggest reason wh, after producing two good news books  – The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need (2007) and The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy (2011) – Turner’s most recent book is an angry study of how Canada’s formerly progressive stance on a number of issues has undergone a 180 degree reversal that sees us marching backwards into the future.

Turner’s basic thesis is that the Harper Government (as it styles itself) is anti-science in nearly all of its activities, and seems intent on turning back to the clock to a way of thinking that predates the prime ministership of Robert Borden.

Turner and a number of other writers have picked Borden’s term of office (1911- 1920) as the beginning of the modern era for several reasons. It was under Borden that the professional civil service, positioned at arms length from the elected government, began to take shape. Its role evolved over the decades to become the advisory body to the government, providing it with the best, most objectively verifiable, advice available on a variety of topics.

Today, as we have seen repeatedly over the last several years, the job of the civil service is to prooftext reality and selectively report those facts which will support the conclusions the governing party has already committed itself to. The first job of public servants is no longer seen to be service to the public, but rather service to the party in power.

It was under Borden that the National Research Council began to take shape, a body dedicated to innovative scientific endeavors from the esoteric to the practical. The views of the scientists employed by the government in various departments were once respected around the world. Now they travel to conferences (when allowed to) with government media minders in attendance and are not permitted to speak or write freely about the results of their investigations.

One is reminded of the political commissars that once were a feature of the various Soviet Socialist Republics. Only data that supports government positions is to be made public.

The NRC has been downgraded to a “concierge” agency dispensing solutions tailor made for the needs of the business and industrial sectors.

Not satisfied with ignoring the science that might contradict its ideology, the present government has, through measures bundled within the pages of massive omnibus bills, selectively reduced its own ability to collect such information or to monitor for problems.

The Experimental Lakes Area was responsible for much vital research on questions like algae bloom and acid rain contamination, and the science carried out there shaped legislation and policy around the world. The current government shut it down, and it was only saved by the efforts of provincial governments and NGOs.

In spite of tons of evidence indicating that criminal activity is falling off, the government passes an omnibus crime bill, enacting just about every sort of punishment that the experts had advised against.

While good data relating to social issues across the nation is essential for good governance, the Conservatives eliminated the mandatory Long Form Census, replacing with a much less accurate voluntary document.

In spite of the PM’s annual Northern Tours and continued rhetoric about the importance of the North, the High Arctic research station known as PEARL was shut down in the winter of 2012-13 due to budget cuts. Funding was restored in May of 2013, but it seems the government’s main interest is in a newer facility, much further south, that will not cover the same range of environmental reporting.

There are more examples, but perhaps it is best to note the place where Turner begins, with the Death of Evidence protest march staged by many of Canada’s scientists in July 2012. The rallying cry of the lab-coated marchers is significant:

‘What do we want?”

“Science!”

‘When do we want it?”

“After peer review!”

Without the freedom of government agencies to follow the science to where it leads and give that advice to the government free from political interference, what we will get is more disasters like the collapse of the cod fishery off the Atlantic seas coast, where the advice provided by the scientists was overruled by bureaucrats too closely plugged in to the political agenda. The short term pain of prudently reduced catch quotas became instead the long-term pain of the total ban on fishing and the destruction of the fishery.

This thin volume is one of the books Turner was working on last winter while staying at Berton House, which Turner acknowledges in his notes as “incomparable … for providing a comfortable and endlessly fascinating retreat for the writing of a portion of this book.”

 

-30-

 

 

 

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