Harper’s anti-science offensive

Scientists rally on Parliament Hill, September 16, 2013.

By DOUGAL MACDONALD

TML Daily (Oct. 15) – IT IS noteworthy that on the Conservative Party of Canada’s Convention Website, the list of resolutions the Harperites will discuss October 31-November 2 in Calgary makes no specific mention of anything directly related to science and scientific research. This is surprising in view of the fact that the Harper dictatorship’s muzzling of science and of scientists’ right to speak about their work is a major issue at this time. On September 16, scientists, researchers, and their supporters held rallies in at least 17 cities across Canada, including in Alberta, to defend the important scientific work they do in the service of the public. The largest rally took place on Parliament Hill where over 1,000 people, including hundreds of scientists in white lab coats, demanded “evidence-based decision-making.”

The work of scientists in the service of keeping Canadians well-informed, safe and healthy and to further the country’s social, environmental, industrial and technological development has been under increasing assault by the Harper dictatorship. At the same time, strong opposition to the anti-science offensive continues to build. On July 10, 2012, a rally against the muzzling of scientists was held on Parliament Hill. On November 16, 2012, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), whose members include many scientists and technicians, held a rally on Parliament Hill to defend public services and oppose layoffs. On February 20, 2013, the Environmental Law Clinic at University of Victoria published a 128-page report entitled Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy. Also, a campaign is continuing to save the Experimental Lakes Area in the Kenora, Ontario region, a research facility of global significance, which had its funding cut last year. Opposition continues to develop against the Harper government’s cancellation of the long form census, which has for decades provided invaluable data to social scientists across the country.

A major aspect of the Harper attack on science has been withdrawing funding from basic research and shifting priorities to short-term commercial applications in the service of the monopolies. This has also been a major theme in Alberta where the Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education continues to call for universities and other research institutes to focus on “practical” work that will enhance the profits of industry, especially the energy industry. Obviously the implicit threat is that federal and provincial funding will only come to those who follow that dictate. Research institutes that focus on the exploitation of the oil sands have already been established with public money at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary. Now the Minister has put in place an “advisory committee” of mainly foreign members that will oversee the creation of a new Alberta research institute that will focus on research with a potential for commercialization, as well as oversee the rest of Alberta’s research facilities.

In addition, in the interests of the energy monopolies, both the Harper dictatorship and the Alberta Tory government have actively suppressed any science that questions the claim that unrestricted exploitation of the Alberta oil sands has little negative effect on the environment. This campaign goes back at least to 1997 when the Alberta government set up the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), financed by the oil companies, with a 28-member steering committee consisting almost entirely of industry and government representatives. RAMP was heavily criticized by scientists, Aboriginal communities, and many others, as over the years its questionable reports kept giving the oil sands operations a clean bill of health. In 2010, David Schindler, a world-renowned aquatics expert at the University of Alberta, made a breakthrough in the public interest when he and his colleagues offered irrefutable evidence that the oil sands industry was polluting the environment of northern Alberta with thirteen pollutants including arsenic, lead and mercury. Schindler and his colleagues’ report was first dismissed by the government and the monopolies but it could not be explained away. The findings were also later confirmed by Environment Canada scientists.

Harper’s anti-science offensive has also adversely affected Alberta’s agriculture industry. An outbreak of E. coli at the XL Foods plant in Brooks in October 2012 was a direct consequence of both the provincial government facilitating the monopoly owner’s unrestricted drive for profits and the Harper dictatorship’s downsizing of the national team of Canadian Food Inspectors. Data provided by the Public Service Alliance of Canada shows that as of May 13, 2013, the federal government had issued layoff notices to 69 food inspectors in Alberta.

To give another example, the April 2012 Harper federal budget made a 9 per cent cut to the budget of the Department of Agriculture, wiping out such important research entities as the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) branch, which was created in 1935 to rehabilitate areas affected by drought and soil drifting in the western provinces, and the Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research facility that investigates cereal grains.

It is very important that scientists, researchers and their allies take advantage of the Conservative Party Convention in Calgary at the end of October to escalate the fight against the Harper dictatorship’s anti-science offensive. They should take the opportunity to denounce in the strongest terms the Harper dictatorship for the muzzling of government scientists and demand that open communication of publicly-funded science must be made available to the public. They must demand that all governments use the best available science and evidence to make decisions, rather than ignoring or suppressing any findings that contradict their neo-liberal agenda. Scientists, researchers and their allies should also demand adequate federal and provincial government support and funding for scientific research, from basic science to applied research and technology innovation.

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