Views / Opinion

Canadian government approach to science reads like satire

And then there’s “Tory candidate Sabrina Zuniga says ground will absorb oil spills.” Oh, sorry, that’s not satire.

Arthur McDonald, a professor emeritus at Queen's University, is shown at the university in Kingston, Ont., Tuesday, Oct.6, 2015.

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Arthur McDonald, a professor emeritus at Queen's University, is shown at the university in Kingston, Ont., Tuesday, Oct.6, 2015.

It’s been a great month for Canadian science. Queen’s University physicist Arthur McDonald won the Nobel Prize for, as the citation reads, “the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass.”  Curiosity-driven science done at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory; pure science done in Canada by a Canadian.
Of course, pro forma congratulations were issued by the prime minister’s office.

But sometimes satire can reflect reality better than anything true. Consider the recent Beaverton headline, “Harper left wondering who let Nobel Prize winner Arthur McDonald talk to the media.” It’s not literally true. McDonald did his fair share of interviews talking about his work and stressing the importance of the government balancing basic and applied research.  He didn’t explicitly mention our government, but we all knew what he meant.

The Nobel Committee has a history of making subtle political points with their choices. It’s not hard to imagine they saw this election as an opportunity to make a point about basic science while acknowledging a deserving Canadian.

Back in 2013 Canada’s National Research Council abandoned its balance of pure and applied research for a nearly exclusive focus on industry-driven work. As the new director at the time said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”  That’s not how you discover neutrinos, or the principles of integrated circuits that underlie our entire technological society.

Another headline too good to be true, this from the Syrup Trap: “Government of Canada pledges $30 million to ignoring science.” Again, we hear a deeper truth. From muzzling scientists, to dismantling the research libraries at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to cancelling the long form census, to firing thousands of scientists and shuttering dozens of research programs, this government has been dead-set against the principles of open inquiry in science and society.

And then there’s “Tory candidate Sabrina Zuniga says ground will absorb oil spills.” Oh, sorry, that’s not satire. A Conservative candidate actually said that. It’s hard to believe someone could be both so ignorant and contemptuous of public well-being.

Is this the kind of country you want? Before you make your choice at the ballot box, research your preferred candidate’s views on science and open inquiry. And after the election, contact your new (or re-elected) MP to say you support evidence-based decision-making in public policy.

John Dupuis is a science librarian at York University. He blogs about science, libraries and politics at Confessions of a Science Librarian and tweets @dupuisj.

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