The Harper government's war on science and knowledge

| September 25, 2013
Photo: Ben Powless

For years now, the federal government has been censuring, muzzling, de-funding, and laying off scientists, librarians, archivists, statisticians, and researchers in its efforts vacate government involvement in core research, and to shift its focus to industry-specific needs.

There are three granting councils that allocate federal funding for research in Canada: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council (NSERC), and the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR). In constant dollars, from 2007-2013, base funding for SSHR has decreased by 10.1 per cent; funding for NSERC has decreased by 6.4 per cent; and funding for CIHR has decreased by 7.5 per cent. Meanwhile, NSERC funding aimed at "company-specific" problems has increased (between 2001-2012) by 1178 per cent, while success rates for CIHR grants has dropped by 61 per cent.

The government rationale for the de-funding and transfer of funding is that tax payer funded research should serve the needs of industry. However, the shift in focus corrupts core research by creating research parameters that compromise thorough examinations of any given hypothesis or premise. While these restrictions serve the government’s agenda to create an unimpeded/streamlined environment for both industry and government ideology, they endanger the public. Core research that interferes with the government/corporate agenda (but sometimes negatively impacts public health and safety) is discarded or suppressed, while narrowly focused research that doesn't contradict corporate government messaging is rewarded.

Public dangers inherent in this strategy of information suppression and distortion are not always tangible, but they are toxic nonetheless.

Consider first the federal government's de-funding of the internationally acclaimed Experimental Lakes Area in Kenora, ON, (constituency of Canada's recently appointed Minister of State for Science and Technology, Mr. Greg Rickford.)

The only plausible explanation for such a closure would be that its findings would likely serve as an impediment to reckless resource extraction. Instead of addressing challenges such as the effect of crude spills on water, or the impact of air pollutants on an ecosystem, the government chooses to deny that the problems exist, or to minimize their impacts. Both strategies of evasion (deny or minimize) are enabled in the absence of core scientific data, but the problems remain and the impacts on the environment, including humans, are perpetuated.

The track record of the pharmaceutical industry also serves to highlight the dangers of industry-specific scientific research.

The tragedy of Vioxx is a case in point.

In its rush to secure a new patent for a new product, the international pharmaceutical company Merck rejected studies on the cardio-vascular risk of its new arthritis and pain drug, Vioxx (rofecoxib), and introduced it prematurely to the general public, in 1999. The drug contributed to an estimated 88,000-140,000 excess cases of serious heart disease, of which close to half would have resulted in fatalities, before it was withdrawn from the market on September 30, 2004.

In Canada, the drug could be associated with 4,000 to 7,000 deaths.

Corporate corruption of science is not a new phenomenon. For decades, scientists employed by Big Tobacco successfully created unreasonable doubt about the safety of their products. Their distorted findings, as we now know, were to the detriment of the public.

The same dynamics are at play with global warming.

Industry-funded global warming "scientists," unqualified to make pronouncements on global warming, and unimpeded by the rigors of submitting their work for peer-review, have created unreasonable doubt about man-made global warming. Consequently, they have impeded efforts to responsibly address what is likely the largest threat to humanity.

The Harper government's decision to cancel the Long Form Census (LFC) is another example of the suppression of core evidence. A thorough census such as the (LFC) produces a detailed and accurate picture of Canada’s demographics. Normally, such data is crucial for creating evidence-based policy; however, the comprehensiveness of the data reveals unwanted information. For example, currently there are about 4.2 million people living in poverty in Canada. Once poverty issues are no longer statistically verifiable, they will no longer need to be thoroughly addressed. Not surprisingly, Canada does not have a national anti-poverty strategy.

Core historical/social science–oriented research -- another area targeted for cuts -- is vital for a nation's self-awareness. Without such awareness, a government can create alternate narratives at will, that may be to the detriment of the public.

For example, we are currently being assaulted with what Naomi Klein calls an "extractivist" mind-set, where core Canadian values are being treated as "overburden" (the derogatory term used by extractors to describe the trees, earth, and ecosystems that are excavated and destroyed before the tar or minerals are exposed).

Additionally, our Republican-inspired governance rejects -- through Omnibus legislation -- constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations to prior consultation, consent, and accommodation for development projects that impact treaties and unceded territories.

As author Anthony James Hall explains in Flanagan's Last Stand, the government has a duty to recognize and affirm aboriginal and treaty rights, but instead it denies and negates these rights as stated in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982.

Furthermore, explains Hall, the Harper government's 'USAocentric' view of North American history ignores the Canadian reality of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which guarantees the Crown's protection of the Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Britain's First Nations allies who, along with the British, successfully repelled American efforts to annex Canada during the War of 1812.

Core understandings of Canada's history and its juridical commitments are foundational elements upon which we can rely to combat falsified government narratives whose barely hidden agenda is the termination of First Nation reserves and cultural protections in favour of corporate extractivism.

The censuring, muzzling, de-funding of Canada's knowledge base works as a cancer that undermines public safety, health and welfare, as well as our societal pluralism, self-determination and sovereignty.

Out first step in combating this assault is continued awareness.

 

Mark Taliano is a writer, activist and retired teacher.

Photo: Ben Powless

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