Monday, 9 June 2014

Book Review: The War on Science

The War on Science:
Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper's Canada
By Chris Turner
Greystone Books

The ham handed efforts by Stephen Harper and his Prime Minister's Office to control government information have rightly caused outrage both inside and outside Canada, particularly because often the messages that do go out are misleading and are designed purely for the benefit of Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada.

As a historian, I join my colleagues in opposing the Harper government's attacks on the Library and Archives of Canada, the census conducted by Statistics Canada, and other services needed by historians to do our work. Moreover, the Harper government is working to promote an historical view of Canada that caters to the prejudices and blind spots of the Conservative 'Base,' in opposition to new directions emerging in Canadian historical research.

Canadians regularly see the Harper government use every trick in the book to advance its agenda, including shutting down Parliament and abusing its rules and traditions, using taxpayers' money for partisan advertising, and shouting down or removing all sources of independent oversight and advice, including those created as part of Harper's own accountability promises made before he took office in 2006. The bottom line of these efforts is to exercise relentless control over all messages emanating from the government to suit the political needs and whims of the prime minister.

This muzzling is a particularly controversial in the area of science, as explained in The War on Science by journalist and recent Green Party of Canada candidate Chris Turner. Relying heavily on the work of the shrinking group of journalists covering science in Canada and a few interviews with key scientists who were willing to talk, Turner has served up a concise critique of the Harper government's efforts to fit scientists into the straitjacket of its media messaging.

The War on Science focuses on science related to the environment, where Canadian government researchers who have been examining the development of climate change have run head on into the Harperite goal of creating economic wealth through exploitation of oil and gas resources, the primary culprits in the jarring climatic changes that are already changing life on Earth. 

Many Canadians are already familiar with Harper government measures that have led to scientific institutes being shut down or severely cut back, notably the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario, and that have seen those researchers who still have government jobs being forced to to run every public statement through media minders with direct connections to the Prime Minister's Office. Canadian government science is being subordinated to politics, as Turner persuasively argues.

Even outside the area of environmental science, the Harper government has damaged Canada's scientific assets. The National Research Council of Canada, which has nearly a century of distinguished research behind it, is now being reduced to being a "concierge" for Canadian businesses seeking scientific help. This directive threatens the NRC's work in basic scientific research that has historically led to economic benefits, but fits in with Harper government spin that it is focused on creating jobs.

In criticizing the Harper government's treatment of science, Turner does miss a number of nuances. Peer reviewed science is without a doubt superior to politics as a means of judging the quality of science, but even peer review and the scientists who carry it out are not without fault or bias.

And while the Harper government has taken political control of science to a new level, this problem did not begin in 2006 when the Harper took office.

As Turner discusses in his book, politics has trumped reality at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for many years as powerful economic interests caused previous Liberal and Conservative governments to ignore or suppress the real scientific findings that our fish stocks were in danger. The result of this massive failure was the collapse of Newfoundland cod fishery in the late 1980s and more recently the fragile state of salmon fisheries on the West Coast. The Harper government has imposed massive cuts, including the destruction of libraries, on this department. 

The sad story of DFO isn't the only one. Another federal department (missed by Turner) with a long history of politically-driven research is Health Canada, where powerful commercial interests, including food producers and the pharmaceutical industry, have called the research tune for decades. Health Canada has long suffered from the governments putting the desire to be seen as friendly to business above the need to protect the public.

And like many other countries, when Canada has been at war, its scientists were enlisted in developing new weapons and means to counter other weapons. 

The history of government-supported scientific research in Canada before 2006 is not as straightforward as Turner would have us believe. But it is true that the Harper government has taken political manipulation of the government's scientific work to a whole new level. And this trend is even more ominous because it is happening for reasons of pure politics to satisfy a group of people, the Conservative 'Base,' many of whom have difficulty accepting numerous realities of the twenty-first century such as climate change.

There is also a whole other story, yet to be told, about how Canada's once-proud Conservatives have fallen under the sway of the Alberta oil industry and the young market-worshiping zealots who populate the Prime Minister's Office.

Even more worrying is the growth of faith-based politics around Canada, the United States and elsewhere at the expense of fact-based policy. The controversial Quebec Charter of Values promulgated by that province's former separatist government, and numerous other provincial initiatives around the country have been designed to appeal to voters' fears and prejudices. Policy being driven by the Tea Party Republicans in the United States is undermining scientific research there, as well as America's position as the economic powerhouse of the world.

Despite its limited scope, The War on Science contains an important message that should be considered by all thoughtful Canadians.

"There is a wager implicit in the Harper agenda's war on science," Turner writes. "The Conservative government is betting that meticulously message-disciplined rhetorical attacks, carefully stage-managed public pronouncements, and glossy Economic Action Plan announcements on every Hockey Night in Canada broadcast will distract the Canadian public from noticing the full toll of the evisceration of governmental science and environmental stewardship until it is too late to be undone." 

Turner concludes by expressing his hope that Canadians will ensure that the Harper Conservatives will lose their bet, a hope I share as the consequences of the political manipulation of Canadian science hit home.

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