In The Media

Will Canada be the country that dumbed itself to death?

by Daryl Copeland

September 1, 2015

Foreign policy issues rarely figure centrally in Canadian politics — and in the public and media mainstream, science is an even more distant outlier.

That’s unfortunate, because science policy matters. Years of resource reductions and the centralized political control and manipulation of all public communications have deeply corroded Canadian democracy, governance and public administration.

Less visible — yet of at least equal consequence — has been the damage to Canada’s global brand wrought by the government’s ill-conceived war on science and rejection of evidence-based policy and decision-making.

Among the warrior-nation wannabes in Ottawa, spin rules. Ideology has displaced reason.

Scientific capacity is critical in treating the central problems of the globalization age, including climate change, resource scarcity, diminishing biodiversity, public health, alternative energy and environmental collapse. These issues are immune to the application of armed force and best addressed through the practice of science diplomacy.

Since 2006, however, Canadian science — its practitioners, institutions and ethos — has taken a beating. Science diplomacy has been eschewed, and the free flow of Canadian-origin scientific information obstructed or blocked — particularly when that data underscores the negative consequences of energy production and industrial development. In one comprehensive survey, 25 per cent of respondents reported that they were forced to modify their research for non-scientific reasons. Public funds have been set aside to investigate the charitable status of environmental groups, while anti-science views — ranging from climate change denial to vaccine refusal to creationism — have become commonplace.

Science — and the culture of fact and experimentation that science supports — contributes to development and security and reinforces democratic well-being. Public access to scientific findings checks propaganda and the arbitrary exercise of political power, while scientific values and methods encourage openness and transparency (through the publication of research findings), merit (through peer review), and civic values and citizen empowerment (through the expression of critical and diverse perspectives). Attacking science, and the ability of scientists to communicate freely, undercuts empirical knowledge creation, understanding and the democratic process, and blunts a key tool in the management of international relations.

The deception and dissembling now displayed so prominently in our national politics may be attributed at least in part to the war on science.

Scientific information is controlled through censorship, the elimination of unpalatable research programs and the muzzling of scientists. For example:

  • High-level science advice has been removed from central agencies and is non-existent in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, despite trends to the contrary almost everywhere else;
  • Science-based departments, funding agencies and NGOs have faced crippling budget cuts and job losses — 1,075 jobs at Fisheries and Oceans and 700 at Environment Canada alone;
  • Opaque, underhanded techniques, such as the passage of the omnibus budget bill C-38 in June 2012, have weakened, reduced or eliminated scientific bodies, programs and legislative instruments. These include the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Nuclear Safety Control Act, the Parks Canada Agency Act and the Species at Risk Act.
  • Canada has withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol and earned distinction as a “Lifetime Unachiever” and “Fossil of the Year”, while promoting the development of heavy oil/tar sands, pipelines, asbestos exports and extractive industries generally;
  • The long form census was abolished — against the advice of everyone dependent upon that data — prompting the resignation of the Chief Statistician;
  • Rare science books have been destroyed and specialized federal libraries and archives closed or downsized;
  • Commercially promising, business-friendly, applied R&D has been privileged over knowledge-creating basic science in government laboratories;
  • Scientists have been publically rebuked, are prevented from speaking freely about their research findings to the public, the media or even their international colleagues, and are required to submit scholarly papers for political pre-clearance
  • Conservative government policies have knocked back Canadian science at the time when we need it most. Canadian democracy has been subverted and the country left vulnerable to a whole host of science-based, technologically-driven global threats.
  • A spate of high-profile commentary on Canada’s tarnished reputation and transformed international role has attracted attention recently. Indeed, the closing of the Canadian mind has been troubling.
  • National science policy plays directly into our capacity to deliver science diplomacy. With the scientific community under siege, that group cannot adequately contribute to the achievement of international policy objectives. Moreover, scientific research informs and conditions society’s ability to understand and engage with the natural world. To break the link between science and society is to alienate politics from nature.

If we are to achieve our promise in the area of science diplomacy, Canadians cannot abide those solitudes. Ideology can never be a substitute for evidence.

There is an alternative to stumbling blind into an uncertain future. To improve our security, restore our democracy and strengthen our defences against the vexing challenges which imperil the planet, the war on science must end.

Now is the time to take back Canada. 

Former diplomat Daryl Copeland is an educator, analyst and consultant, author of Guerrilla Diplomacy, a Research Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a Policy Fellow at the University of Montreal’s CERIUM. Follow him on Twitter @GuerrillaDiplo.


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