Tuesday 13 November 2012

Canada's war on science

Stephen Harper's Conservative government seems determined not only to muzzle its scientists, but to eviscerate the agencies they work for, the guise of "trimming the fat". I'll list some of these cuts in a moment, but first I want to point out a stark difference between Canada and most other free nations: Canada's government must give its approval before any scientist working for any governmental agency may speak to the press.

Most often, the government withholds its approval. Less frequently, it delays such approval just long enough as to render it meaningless. These scientists and their research are paid for by Canadian taxpayers, but our own government muzzles its employees and for the most part prevents our hearing what they have to say.
This technique is necessary only because the government doesn't have the balls to do what it actually would prefer. The Conservatives know they cannot simply abolish Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, Library and Archives Canada, the National Research Council, Statistics Canada, and the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council -- that might awaken the sleeping populace. Instead, the government has chosen the path of evisceration, slashing the budgets of all these organizations to the point of almost complete paralysis.

(You might have noticed that the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was not mentioned. That's because the government killed it outright. Also absent from the list is the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory: in this case it was enough to terminate its funding.)

If this weren't sufficiently abhorrent, the government has gutted or rendered toothless most of Canada's environmental protection legislation, including the Environmental Assessment Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Fisheries Act.

The overall reason for all this butchery is not the belt-tightening the government alleges. Not at all: this is about silencing the critics and going full-bore ahead with such controversial projects as development of Alberta's tar sands, construction of a pipeline from Alberta through British Columbia to the coast, and similar resource-extraction initiatives.

Ironically, what may help save the Canadian environment is the recent announcement in the United States that thanks to "fracking", it will soon surpass both Russia and Saudi Arabia in oil production, and that by 2035 it will be totally self-sufficient in terms of energy. This leaves the Harper government with two choices: either continue headlong with the pipeline projects, hoping to sell the USA as much oil as possible before the shale oil is fully on-line, or -- much less likely, pause and take a deep breath and reconsider. A sudden plethora of American oil won't change the fact that Asian markets will remain thirsty for decades, and increasingly so. I'm not sure that I want that to be taken as approval of the pipeline to the Pacific project, which is not only environmentally risky but also strenuously opposed by the First Nations peoples in B.C., who happen to own the land.

Oh, piffle! Plod on, Mr. Harper. Just chuck out property rights (that is, First Nation property rights) along with all the science we've been wasting money on all these years.

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