“If people don’t speak out there will never be any change,” says the University of Victoria’s award-winning climate scientist Andrew Weaver.
And the need for change in Canada, says Weaver, has never been more pressing.
“We have a crisis in Canada. That crisis is in terms of the development of information and the need for science to inform decision-making. We have replaced that with an ideological approach to decision-making, the selective use of whatever can be found to justify [policy decisions], and the suppression of scientific voices and science itself in terms of informing the development of that policy.”
Since 2007 – when the Harper government established strict communications procedures for federal scientists – journalists, academics and scientific organizations have watched the steady decline of government transparency as a message management strategy usurps what was once the free flow of federal scientific information.
Why Government Science Matters
There are three ways science is conducted in Canada, says Weaver: in universities, in private industry, and in government laboratories. As far as industry is concerned, he says, research is conducted for the purpose of shareholder profit or to advance the position of the company in one way or another.
Academic research –conducted in universities by professors and graduate students – is what Weaver calls “curiosity driven research.”
Federal government research is “research done in the public good.”
“There are certain projects, long term monitoring for example, that will never get done at a university where you have students come and go and university professors move,” says Weaver. “These projects will also not be done by industry where they might not necessarily be in the best interests of some shareholders if, for example, the company gets bought up or moved.”
Weaver says the burden of public-interest research lies solely with the government. It is the only entity suited to the challenge of transforming evidence-based science into improved public policy. It is also the government’s opportunity to demonstrate to the public where their hard-earned tax dollars are being directed.
“It’s important for the taxpayer to know what their funding is being used for,” says Weaver. “When the government is conducting science it is fundamentally important that taxpayers knows what science is being done and also that other scientists know what science is being done so science can evolve.”
Two things happen when science communication is suppressed, he adds. The first is science fails to evolve. The second is that “public interest or public value in science diminishes.”
The suppression of scientific communication we are seeing in Canada, says Weaver, “can be viewed as undermining the role of science in society and the role of science in decision-making.” There is an underlying explanation for this, he says. It is the current government’s energy superpower agenda, where science “can at times conflict with approaches to policy making.”
Therein lies the rub. “This is why scientists in both universities and at the federal level are so aghast at what has been going in Canada during the last few years. It’s the muzzling of scientists, the shutting down of key federal science programs that were involved in monitoring for the public good, and the reliance of the government on industry to do monitoring for itself. As a member of the general public this concerns me.”
This concerns Weaver most because of the crucial relationship between science and democracy. “Science can never proscribe policy,” he says. “It’s really important that scientists and the public know that. Science never says this is the policy we should implement. But what science is there to do is to inform those policy discussions. You make the policy based on evidence.”
“What you cannot do in a democratic society is suppress evidence because then you’re into propaganda and ideology. And this is what is happening in Canada. Evidence used to inform society – to determine whether we are in favour of a policy or not – is suppressed. And the media’s access to that evidence is suppressed.”
“The fallout is that media can no longer serve the role it should in a functioning democratic society: to inform the general public about the issues involved in making policy and to hold our elected leaders accountable for the information and policies that they put in place.”
“We have a problem,” says Weaver, when the “silencing of science throws a wedge into our democratic process.”
“We Cannot Stand By”
Weaver says that federal scientists, especially those recently ousted from their public servant positions, are ideally situated to oppose what many have characterized the Harper government’s attack on science.
“I do not accept that they cannot speak out. I think they need to muster the courage to tell it like it is. There are federal scientists who can tell it like it is. I recognize that there are consequences but you know what? This is a crisis and you can’t rely on a few individuals outside the federal government to speak up.”
Get the public sector employees union engaged, says Weaver, and “stop cowering behind the façade of ‘I can’t speak or I’ll be disciplined.’”
Weaver, these days, is in no mood to entertain silence because of the threat of reprimand. The stakes are just too high and the need for change too great. Even the public, says Weaver, is fighting on the scientists’ behalf. For that and many other reasons scientists cannot ignore their own plight. “They need to get engaged.”
“I feel strongly about that because when anybody speaks up, of course, there are always consequences. But if people don’t speak out there will never be any change.”
No matter our mild-mannered reputation, “we cannot stand by and watch what is happening to our scientific institutions and to the role of federal government science without standing up.” The days of protecting one’s own little turf and hoping someone else’s will be cut are over, says Weaver. In particular, the cuts are so deep and so devastating to monitoring programs that “everyone needs to recognize that what is happening in Canada is hurting all Canadians and we need to work together on this.”
One need only point to the systematic dismantling of Canada’s ocean contaminants program to see what Weaver means. In May, the Harper government announced the marine contaminants program had to go. More than 50 employees were told their services had been terminated effective April 1, 2013. The loss of this program came with a massive reduction of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which lost over 1,000 employees in one fell swoop.
“Look what is happening,” says Weaver. “We’re shutting down the ocean contaminants program in Canada, right across the nation. Canada no longer has a marine contaminants program. Oh, that’s convenient. Why would we want such programs when we might find nasty things, nasty toxins in the water that might actually cause us to not put pipelines across British Columbia or put tankers on the coast?”
This is the cost of our silence, according to Weaver. “This is what happens when people don’t speak out. The next is the smokestack emissions group shut down. Why? We don’t want to monitor those emissions. Let industry monitor those emissions. We have the Experimental Lakes Area shut down. Why? We’d rather have industry look at that, we don’t need pristine areas for federal government and other scientists to work at.”
Canada on the International Stage
While the Harper government scales back the science in the country, we seem to be ramping up production of unconventional fuel sources, both with fracking for shale gas, most notably in B.C. and Alberta, and with the extraction of tar sands bitumen. At the same time, Canada has experienced a considerable flagging of the nation’s reputation on the international stage. Canada, once widely beloved as a peace-keeping bastion of diplomatic good will, is now seen on the world stage as a climate laggard, saboteur of the Kyoto Accord, and obstructionist of international environmental talks.
“It’s embarrassing,” says Weaver. “It’s quite sad.”
Like many Canadians, Weaver remembers a time when American backpackers would pin Canadian flags on their bags. “Things are a little different now,” he says.
“As Canadians we’re not viewed like we were in the past. We’re viewed like we have a government that believes we are more militaristic than other nations; a nation that is built on the exploitation of a natural resource; that come hell or high water were going to extract and sell to Asia and that we don’t really care about environmental issues.”
“This does not bode well for Canada’s long term international influence.”
The fact that the Prime Minister and his administration seem hell-bent on removing any obstacles to tar sands expansion and exports seems to confirm the negative sentiments. “We’re so myopic in our vision that we’re just going to get that bitumen out of the ground, we’re going to ship it in pipelines to Asia as fast as we can. Let’s get it out, make money now. Who cares about the future, or future generations? Let’s do it now, for today. Let’s live the high life now.”
“This is not economically sustainable, this is not fiscally sustainable, this is not socially sustainable and this is not environmentally sustainable. This is madness. But this is what we’re doing in Canada and this is the path our current government is taking while removing any barriers that might actually stop it from happening.”
“This is a crisis of democracy.”