Sunday, June 17, 2012
Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada have never provided a convincing illusion of being good for either science or the environment, but they nevertheless managed to wheedle enough support to squeeze out a majority government*. Somehow, a slim majority has put it into Harper's head that this now means that his party doesn't just lead the Government of Canada, but rather that they are the Government of Canada (or, rather, that the Government of Canada shall now henceforth be renamed the Harper Government). Taking this
conflation and running with it, Harper has consistently taken the view that government scientists must get approval before speaking with the press. The latest example of this policy is a letter sent to Parks Canada employees informing them that it is their "duty" to support the Harper government. The bizarre logic behind this policy seems to be that Harper views Canadian scientists as employees of the government, and since he views the Government of Canada and the Harper Government as synonymous entities, all Canadian scientists (and all other civil servants, by the same logic) are now expected to toe the Conservative line.
Which leads me to conclude that Harper must not understand what public science is for. After all, supporting party policy is the job of politicians and pundits, not scientists. It is this fundamental misunderstanding, then, which leads to the short-sighted axing of huge swathes of Canadian science. For example, the government claims that halting funding for the Experimental Lakes Area makes sense because it no longer fits with Ottawa's mandate. Such a line of reasoning actually does make sense if one believes that the job of government scientists is to support government policy, since the current government doesn't actually care about fresh water preservation or protection.
Civil science in actuality is meant to service the people of the country, not the policy of the government. Of course, this is an old struggle between scientist and politician, but I had honestly believed that a modern understanding had come to pass acknowledging the necessary degree of autonomy and impartiality relegated to scientific and regulatory bodies (like Parks Canada). It is this fundamental perversion of the relationship between policy and empirical study which, to me, is the most disturbing aspect of Harper's leadership.
* For anyone who voted for the Conservatives because they were sick of a minority government leading to constant elections, that's a terrible argument. Sometimes having a non-functional Parliament is better than having one which will toe the line for bad policy.