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The Harper government 'muddles along': Argument for a government-supported science policy

Shortly after I joined the Ministry of Health as an aide to the Minister, cabinet was shuffled. Environment and Energy were split in two and I followed my Minister to the Ministry of Energy, Science and Technology.

This was the first time that science had its own Ministry in Ontario rather than being a junior, toothless sub-Ministry or secreted away, lost in a bureaucratic labyrinth. For a few weeks, we excitedly cobbled together some semblance of a science mandate, thinking big thoughts about what we could achieve.

Time passed, little happened other than our attending some science conferences, and the whole thing fizzled. After the next cabinet shuffle, science was quietly ushered out the door. 

In a recent editorial in the journal Nature, Canada is rebuked for neglecting science in government policy. We merely "muddle along".

And this isn't the first time we've been shamed by Nature. In 2008, the Harper government was criticized for having a "manifest disregard for science".

Proving Nature right, the Harper government axed the National Science Advisor in March 2008, and then six months later, a chiropractor named Gary Goodyear was appointed as Minister of State responsible for science and technology. You would think that someone tasked with the science portfolio, no matter how weak a voice he has at the cabinet table, might have at least a high school understanding of one of the most fundamental cornerstones of science.

When asked if he "believed" in evolution, Goodyear refused to respond, uttering some nonsense about religious belief. When those people the Conservatives call "elite" (i.e. people who read books) heard Gary "Scopes Monkey Trial" Goodyear tip-toe around evolution, there was a collective gasp followed by a collective rolling of eyes.

But Goodyear, in an attempt to say he does "believe" in evolution, got it all fantastically wrong with this Lamarckian statement: "We are evolving every year, every decade. That's a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it is running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment."

And Goodyear's cabinet colleague, Stockwell Day, said that there was "scientific proof" that early humans lived with dinosaurs.

Yes Canada, we are in trouble when it comes to science. Or at least we're in trouble when it comes to our political leaders' unsettling scientific illiteracy.

We see them wrestle with science when they dispute the preponderance of evidence supporting anthropogenic climate change. We see them ignore peer-reviewed studies that indicate that the supervised-injection site, Insite, reduces: harm; ER visits; overdose deaths, and; transmission of infection.

The Conservatives' scientific ignorance is jeopardizing our climate and our health.

In addition to our leaders' miserable understanding of science, science also receives poor coverage in the mainstream media. Many generalist reporters do not competently report scientific findings and sometimes "balance" is given to charlatans and the truly confused.

Science is awe-inspiring. It casts light on the shadows of ignorance and superstition. It gives us a tremendous appreciation for and understanding of the world around us. It makes us critical thinkers and skeptics, never settling for simple answers or magic, but searching for proof, for evidence.

We are in dire need of science policy supported by all levels of government. We are without a science lobbying group comparable to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and this needs to be remedied.

We must demand that our governments and our political parties treat science policy as seriously as health care and education and the environment because all of those policies need science to thrive and survive.

Ministers like Day and Goodyear aren't risible fools. They are a source of tremendous shame and embarrassment. And too many like them populate the halls of power.

Let's make science an election issue. A scientifically illiterate nation is an intellectually impoverished nation.

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