The Course of Reason

Canada and Science

May 22, 2013

Stephen Harper, Canadian Prime MinisterCanada and science have had a rocky relationship over the past few years.  This relationship reached a point of turmoil when scientists gathered on Parliament Hill to “mourn the death of evidence”. 

In what comes off as an effort to do away with an significant scientific progress in Canada, the Harper government has:

·         Declared the long-form census, vital to gathering statistical data on the country, no longer mandatory

·         Closing the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory

·         Budget cuts to scientific departments

·         An attempt to close the Experimental Lakes Area (“the world’s most important freshwater research centre”)

·         May be muzzling scientists whose research goes against the government’s views

The government argues that this is all about efficiency and reducing costs to cut down on the deficit, which is the response given to most criticisms of cost cutting measures.  When the cuts go so far that they spur scientists to rally for a cause at the steps of the Canadian government, something is amiss.

Imagine how the scientists that rallied on Parliament Hill last year must be feeling after hearing the latest news: The National Research Council has declared that, “they will only perform science that has social or economic gain.   If you needed more proof that this government has no problem going after important scientific work if it means saving a few dollars, here it is.

John MacDougal, President of the NRC said:

“Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”. Gary Goodyear, the Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, also stated “There is [sic] only two reasons why we do science and technology. First is to create knowledge ... second is to use that knowledge for social and economic benefit. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost.”

I don’t know anything about MacDougal’s background though I think it’s safe to assume he’s a terrible choice for NRC President if this is a good summary of his views.  Goodyear, on the other hand, has proven once again that he shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a position with “science” in the title.  This man dropped out of a degree in Biomechanics and Psychology to pursue a, wait for it, profession as a chiropractor.  Worse, when asked about evolution he initially responded by saying “I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.”  To be fair, he did give a better response afterwards.  However, that was only after a harsh response from the scientific community and press. 

This is what we’re dealing with in Canada.  While not as bad as the Young Earth Creationists running around Congress in the U.S., it’s still frustrating to see people who should have no business overseeing issues of science making these types of decisions.  Given that science is supposed to be about discovering the unknown, how does a researcher make a case that the science being done will guarantee an economic or social benefit?  Research may result in something inconclusive, and that’s why we do it.  To determine for sure whether or not this idea will result in something useful.  A point the NRC and the Ministry of Science and Technology seem to be missing. 



About the Author: Chris Burke

Chris Burke's photo
Chris Burke holds a Bachelors in Environmental Studies: Honours Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. Next he will be working towards a Masters of Environmental Studies in Sustainability Management. He's an active member of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo student group. In his spare time he enjoys reading and playing music.




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