What Canada stands to lose in the war on science

The reign of the current Canadian Conservative government has been relentlessly hostile to science. Government scientists are not allowed to publish or speak to the press without permission from political officers who censor even the most innocuous statements. Basic science research has been slashed. Given that the Tories' real power base is the tar sands petroleum industry -- the dirtiest form of oil extraction being practiced anywhere in the world today -- it's not surprising. Scientists in Canada are fed up. 2,000 scientists staged a "funeral for evidence" on Parliament Hill this summer.

C. Scott Findlay's Toronto Star editorial on the Harper government's war on science and evidence is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what Canada stands to lose from systematic, relentless attacks on science, truth and evidence-based policy.

Even so, close examination of the $1.1 billion investment shows that much has been allocated to industry and commercial science partnerships. Meanwhile, the proportion of funding allocated to basic research, such as the budget of the Discovery Grants program of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, has been dropping steadily since 2006.

The science enterprise is like a pyramid. At the base are scientists engaged in the importunate probing of nature’s corpus — say, characterizing the molecular signalling pathways whose activation predisposes cells to become cancerous. Balancing on their shoulders are scientists who apply this knowledge to existing problems — say, developing a cancer drug that will block some of these signalling pathways. And teetering at the apex are scientists engaged in the industrialization of applied research — say, finding efficient ways of producing cancer drugs in large quantities at a reasonable price.

As children, we learned that the larger the base, the taller the pyramid that can be supported: the more basic research, the more opportunities for commercialization and industrialization. Moreover, an uneven base — areas of science where there is comparatively little basic research — not only means no corresponding opportunities for application or industrialization but, worse still, increases the chances of the whole structure toppling over. So too does overloading the top levels: after all, even the most robust basic scientist can support only so many of her applied and industrialization colleagues on her shoulders.

Governing in the dark: Ottawa’s dangerous unscientific revolution (via Confessions of a Science Librarian)


  1. If the NDP could only get it together and have a running chance at unseating the Conservative Party, I’d hope for a vote of no-confidence. I’d rather the turmoil that comes with one of those than three more guaranteed years of King Steve on the hill, turning us into a substandard housing project of the US.

    1. When they had a minority government, yes. But Harpo has a majority now — we would need floor-crossers AND a non-confidence vote to unseat him.

      1. ^^yep, but there is some small chance that he will go too far in his Reform manner for the tremendous number of PC members to stomach. 

        It’s far and away more likely that he would be replaced from within if a truly major scandal broke than it is some outside force could force his hand, due to the majority.

        Fact is, most of his party does not consider him good, or moral, or decent, or honest, or a leader, they consider him cunning, cunning enough to gain power in their name, which they have not had for a long long time. Deals with devils are often made with good or at least honest intention.

        Most, an overwhelming majority, of Conservatives are PC, about a 6th are Reform. Maybe, though unlikely it seems to me, they will take their party back from the likes of Harper and his Reform dogs like Clement and Toews and Nicholson.

        I always look for a reason to remind the Conservatives I know that I respect their majority, their chance to lead, but that it’s too bad that they don’t really have that chance with a Reformer at the head.

        1. Majority of Consevaties are Red Tories (as Canadians call progressive conservatives or small c conservatives who lean to the centre)? I’d like to believe that but based on this vote: http://openparliament.ca/bills/votes/41-1/466/ over a pretty divisive social consicence / morality issue (all about abortion in all but name) I’m not seeing a sixth of the party as Reform. 91 voted yes out of 166 – that’s more then half.  

          1. I dig it, and all of his cabinet is reform. Silent majorities are rarely represented in anything but revolt, hopefully at a ballot box. But this happens in Canada. When a government or a party is shit-canned for a time, it happens dramatically. They can go from majority to third party status, history tells it.

            Harper MP’s remain MP’s by toeing the line. They’ll get thrown under the bus, a favourite phrase round here, if they speak out, but still it happens occasionally. Some of them back-tracked on Bill c-## (30? the internet snoop bill) but by then it was a calculated retreat, probably orchestrated. Harper runs a very tight ship, anyone gets uppity, they won’t get the nom in the next election, even if incumbent. He’s masterful, in a sick way.

          2. While I agree that Harper runs a tight ship, it is interesting when his ministers and backbenchers do things or speak up in ways which draw crazy attention to them. There’s countless examples: Maxine Bernier, Vic Toews, Gerry Ritz, Rob Anders, Maurice Vellacott, Dean Del Mastro, Bev Oda… But out of that short list only Bev Oda resigned because of her behavior. All of those guys would have had to resign if they were MPs during the Mulroney years. Its hard for me to say what Harper’s trying to do there. Maybe it is some kind of cognitive dissonance.

          3. I’d say Bernier was simply favoured, since his screw ups are mostly clumsy stuff politically speaking. 

            Toews is there to test limits and most of the others are too IMO. Can we pass laws with or majority that will make it easy to keep the majority using government for partisan measures? Let’s see. Toews, we need to be able to tap into any communication, at will, warrantless and with no obligation to even keep records of doing so, float this bill will ya? (failed)

            Clement, end that StasCan shit, we don’t need our governing to be held up to a meter stick that way, won’t do. End it or make it yours, compromise it completely. (succeeded)

            Those are the most obvious ones, there are many others, many which will no longer need to be tested in that way due to his new found love of omnibus bills.

            Despite it being hardly a distance at all, since people know Harper is a task master of control when it comes to his ministers, that one step away business allows him to remain unsullied if part of his base reacts poorly to the acts of these folk. 

            Again referencing c-30, people associate it with Toews, not Harper & company, despite Toews barely understanding, or pretending to barely understand what c-30 allowed. 

            And everyone knows Clement did that StatsCan biz, only opposition hardcore mention Harper in regard to it. 

            Bev Oda had to go because she offended the base, and that ultimate distancing was necessary. She was openly wasteful with money in a way that was easy for the opposition to exploit and even worse, she maintained an image of putting on airs. She was bad for business operatively and optically. It was better for Harper to have an ideologue with her background on CIDA, but she had too many other failings.

            As long as it’s always “individual” ministers fucking up, or fucking us, Harper will get a pass from much of his base.

          4. I left out what I thought of the recently aborted abortion debate. Harper knows red tories don’t want to go there and promised repeatedly he would not. How to quell a groundswell of pro-life/anti-choice in his midst? Have a relatively useless back-bencher throw up a brass ring to then miss. Not a bill to stop abortion or make law on it, just to discuss it. Then allow MPs in non-urban/suburban ridings, or other safe ridings to vote for it, knowing it would be quashed. Many pro-life/anti-choice have been cold on Harper for awhile, but they are their own millstone, and Harper doesn’t care at all about tat issue.

            He threw a bone and the bone led blame away. Now his MPs can say to that group, while shrugging “I voted yes to that” or “I opposed that because it wasn’t enough, we need to outlaw that, not discuss it, and if we keep our majority, it will happen in x amount of time” (and that second answer, quite probable.

          5. You know, I’m not disagreeing with you, but I do find it a little depressing that we talk about our politicians in these terms and in this way. Maybe Trudeau’s dauphin will perk things up…

  2. I don’t get what Harper’s reason would be for taking such an anti-Science stance. It is common knowledge that he is a Christian, but in Canada, we’re allowed to be Jesus-loving AND science-believing.

      1. That might be his long-term goal, but right now, he’s working on demolishing everything we have that’s better (ostensibly) than the US: health care, social services, education, environmental protection. He’s also doing the very American thing where he’s doing much of this to benefit large, wealthy corporate interests at the expense of everyone else. This isn’t strictly an American thing, but the revolving door’s just gotten larger and faster lately.

        1. What you are describing is the UK. We have the same process going on. It seems that the solution to the failure of neoliberalism in the collapse of 2008 is ‘shock therapy’ neoliberalism, ie. austerity and economic stagnation for all! In the name of global free trade, we dismantle all monopolistic social services, like the NHS and OHIP, and dismantle them so the free market can do it, ie. US corporations can do it. We’ve got ex-Goldman Sachs people runnning our hospitals! Our cops are going private now. Schools too. Privatise everything. Hurray for Mr. Burns!

          1. Yeah, I mean, if Hawking had had to rely on the NHS he’d be two variables short of an equation right now, eh, eh?


    1. Harper is an extremist. Examine his history, particularly his membership in the Northern Foundation. 

      He is far, far too intelligent to have not known just what that group was.

      Harper is science-believing. He prefers soft sciences that he masterfully uses to craft power, those sciences are supported by harder science that he also has great respect for. Witness as evidence his swift take-down of StatsCan, which was a potential threat.

      He is an ideologue of the worst form. Exponentially cunning.

    2. His reason for opposing science is obvious – science keeps turning up facts that disagree with his policies. Since his policies must be right, science that disagrees with it must be destroyed. Get rid of research on climate change, and the arguments against the oil sands devolve to opinion. Get rid of the long form census and minorities are suddenly vague, debatable volumes of people that can be ignored due to lack of evidence.

      It’s about cutting the legs out from under people who would call them on thier bullshit and lies by removing their ability to provide solid evidence.

  3. Whoa Whoa Whoa timeout timeout. Who is this article talking to? Obviously not Harper or the current stock of the Conservative Party. Way to make a useless preaching to the choir article.

    Here where it fails:

    * Using facts — uh guess what CPC and Harper do not give 1 crap about facts. Prisons? Copyright? The only facts they care about is that the money they are spending is not theirs (it is ours).

    * Using reason — again people when will you stop wasting your breath on these people. You can’t use reason, it doesn’t work. If it worked we wouldn’t be here. Really use some reason, think it through.

    * Lack of plea to emotion and “morals” — look you have to set it up like they violating something historically accepted as normal. It has to look like they are supporting abortion or listening to hip hop. You have to convince them through rhetorical tricks, logical fallacies, pleas to authority and other dirty tricks that they are not on track.

    So stop wasting your breath on these people. 

    1. On the whole Conservative Canadians have seemed to me about equal to swing-voter Democrats to the south. 

      They are not all mouth-breathing cross burners who care more about their guns than their neighbours. That’s just a segment of Reformers. Most PC are decent people, and smart enough to ignore or see through all your suggested practices. The largest number of Conservatives are just as close to being Liberals as the large number of Liberals who are damn near Conservatives. That is where from the majority sprang. 

      Reason, facts and a lack of rhetoric remain the best tools for reaching silent majorities.

        1. My bad, it’s a distinction I like because CPC is comprised of both progressives and reformers despite them being quite distinct. Harper gets a lot of traction out of the fact that a lot of people the world round cut slack to any Canadian even if they call themselves a Conservative, even in Canada. Lots of people would automatically conclude that he isn’t an extremist, because, you know, he’s Canadian. 

  4. It’s filthy money.  It’s always filthy money.  The rest is just the set of disguises under which filthy money hides.

  5. Screw that… tell them how we really feel and hold a Funeral for Harper. Canada would be a whole lot better if that asshole just keeled over.

  6. God I hate the non-proportional system of voting for our government where a minority can always dominate the majority of people.

  7. The content-to-length ratio was rather low in this article, Cory. 

    The only fact cited – “the proportion of funding allocated to basic research …..  has been dropping steadily since 2006” – was not backed up with data. (And even if it was, the phrase “proportion of funding” could conceal an increase in actual dollars toward that end).

    Perhaps some citations of actual suppression of scientific findings could be provided from BB’s Great White North readers??

    1. A very quick google search got me this – http://www.deathofevidence.ca/why While that is a partisan website (anti-Harper / Conservative Party protest group) it does list the major issues with the current government and their actions in the last while. There are other issues I’m sure if you were to dig a little deeper. It does not include any of the numerous outright ignorant anti-science statements that many members of his government have expressed over the years. With a little more time I could track those down for you.

    2. There is this as well… An open letter to Harper from the Canadian Science Writers Association which details some of the issues: http://sciencewriters.ca/2012/02/16/prime-minister-please-unmuzzle-the-scientists/  That letter coincided with an editorial in Nature on the same subject which was discussed on BB in March – http://boingboing.net/2012/03/02/canada-to-science-drop-dead.html. Here’s another article in Nature from 2010 on more or less the same subject – http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100929/full/467501a.html I do understand the skepticism but their policies make it more or less clear. While they can deny an anti-science stance, which might be too strong a description of their actions for some, their priorities are clearly not on science and arguably science & facts get in the way of their goals.

  8. “As children, we learned that the larger the base, the taller the pyramid that can be supported”

    Actually, I learned that from World of Goo

  9. The article does not address the problem from the right angle.

    The pyramid analogy is fictitious. Knowledge is produced in a network. It’s important to look at the relationships within that network. Shaping it into a pyramid doesn’t relate this problem to the wider problem. It also makes science look like it’s a special untouched form of knowledge building (which it is not).

    The wider problem is that Harper is limiting the precision with which we can monitor what he is doing. He wants to make us blind to the environment, poverty, health care, inequality, the rest of the world, and anything else he’s actively neglecting in the pursuit of the interests of powerful industries. He is cutting out any node in the network that makes him look bad. If we can’t measure his failures we can’t criticize him for them.

    The scientific community (and the article you are featuring here) often asks for a hands-off approach to funding. As though the politics of governance are somehow destroying the otherwise pure and objective process that they’ve set in place. But scientists are human, and humans are political, so lets forget that debate and focus on what is actually happening here. We have a government that wants to shield us from unflattering information. So what is the Harper gov’t really trying to accomplish here?

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