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Silence of the Labs

With massive cuts by Ottawa to everything from food inspections to water quality and climate change and the dismissal of more than 2,000 federal scientists and researchers, some scientists have become unlikely radicals -- denouncing what they call a politically-driven war on knowledge. In Silence of the Labs, Linden MacIntyre tells their story - and what is at stake for Canadians - from Nova Scotia to the B.C. Pacific Coast and the far Arctic Circle.
BROADCAST DATE : Jan 10, 2014

Silence of the Labs

Scientists across the country are expressing growing alarm that federal cutbacks to research programs monitoring areas that range from climate change and ocean habitats to public health will deprive Canadians of crucial information.

“What’s important is the scale of the assault on knowledge, and on our ability to know about ourselves and to advance our understanding of our world,” said James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

In the past five years the federal government has dismissed more than 2,000 scientists, and hundreds of programs and world-renowned research facilities have lost their funding. Programs that monitored things such as smoke stack emissions, food inspections, oil spills, water quality and climate change have been drastically cut or shut down.

The fifth estate requested interviews with two senior bureaucrats and four cabinet ministers with responsibility for resources, the environment and science. All of those requests were denied.

On Tuesday, the fifth estate received a statement from the office of Greg Rickford, Minister of State for Science and Technology, and the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario.

"Our government has made record investments in science," it stated. "We are working to strengthen partnerships to get more ideas from the lab to the marketplace and increase our wealth of knowledge. Research is vibrant and flourishing right across the country."

But members of the scientific community disagree. CBC’s the fifth estate spoke to scientists across the country who are concerned that Canadians will suffer if their elected leaders have to make policy decisions without the benefit of independent, fact-based science.

Who is monitoring changes in ocean toxicity?

Dr. Peter Ross, Canada’s only marine mammal toxicologist, spent 15 years studying the increasing levels of toxins in oceans and in animals like the killer whale. But in the spring of 2012, the federal government closed the Department of Fisheries contaminants program, dismissing Ross and 55 of his colleagues across the country.

“What we have done in Canada is turn off the radar,” Ross told the fifth estate’s Linden MacIntyre. “We are flying along in an airplane, and we’ve put curtains over the windshield of those pilots, of that flight-crew, and we’ve turned off the instruments. We don’t know what is coming tomorrow, let alone next year in terms of some of these potentially catastrophic incidents in our oceans.”

Similar concerns led to demonstrations in 17 cities across Canada in September 2013, with protesters calling for the federal government to stop cuts to research programs, and relax rules that many government scientists said hampered them from telling the public about their research.

Ross used to give frequent interviews to the media about his studies into the contamination of Canada’s oceans, and the fish and animals in them. He says that stopped when Prime Minister Stephen Harper came into power.

“My ability to convey important findings to the general public, to the electorate, to the taxpayer, has been severely curtailed,” Ross told the fifth estate.

Not long after the Conservative government was elected in 2008, a new media protocol was introduced that required any request for an interview with a federal scientist to be approved by officials. Documents obtained through access to information requests by Postmedia News stated that “Just as we have ‘one department, one website’ we should have ‘one department, one voice’.”

Dr. Peter Phillips, a specialist in public policy and science at the University of Saskatchewan argues that it is not the role of government scientists to speak out to the public, but rather work behind the scenes to advise politicians. It is up to the politicians to make decisions, and the voters will hold them to account, he says.

“We don’t have philosopher kings that make choices for us,” he told MacIntyre. “Scientists give us the evidence that accumulates and generates compelling stories about how, what can and should be done by society. But it doesn’t tell us when do we move. It doesn’t tell us where to move. It gives us some options.”

How will the impact of climate change in the Arctic be measured?

Dr. Tom Duck is a professor of Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University, who helped found the world-renowned Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, or PEARL.

Located just 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole, the research station was a one-of-a-kind facility that provided scientific data on ozone depletion and climate change for scientists around the world. Then in 2012, its budget was drastically cut.

Without that funding for PEARL, Duck had to stop his research, and most of his colleagues left the country to find other work.

Duck fears that the Harper government’s pursuit of valuable oil and gas resources in the Arctic, as they become increasingly accessible due to climate change, led to the cuts at PEARL.

“We know that climate change is an enormous problem. It is the problem for the next century, so if you want to get out your oil, you have to get it out now,” he told the fifth estate. “If you want to get it out now, you make sure the scientists aren’t causing any problems. If you want to make sure the scientists aren’t causing any problems, you take away all their funding.”

In May 2013, PEARL received a new grant from the federal government, pledging $5 million over five years so that the facility could resume its operations. But it wasn’t enough to save Duck’s research - his lab in Halifax where scientists processed data from the Arctic station is now closed, and his research group has left.

How will the environmental impact of the oil sands be addressed?

Resource development in the oil sands of Alberta has also turned a number of Canadian scientists into critics of the Harper government, raising alarms about the long-term environmental and health consequences of oil extraction.

Before he retired in the fall of 2013, for example, David Schindler was a professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, where his research raised concerns about pollution from the oil sands. His research team found that the resource project was contaminating the Athabasca watershed, and some fish living there were developing deformities. When his findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schindler was criticized by both the Alberta and federal governments.

Now he’s become an outspoken critic of a government ideology that he says is putting economic development ahead of all other policy objectives.

“It’s like they don’t want to hear about science anymore,” he said. “They want politics to reflect economics 100 per cent - economics being only what you can sell, not what you can save.”

But Phillips says cuts to federal programs and institutes do not necessarily mean that science has been decimated, but rather that excessive regulation has been reduced.

“I think what’s happened is there’s been a rebalancing. To some people that’s gutting, because it changes the balance of power in these processes,” he said. “For those who do not want to see certain types of development, it will be gutting. But for people who are expecting appropriate oversight of new developments, but want to see socially responsible development emerge - some people may see that as a positive.”

What don’t we know about Canada’s earliest history?

Dr Pat Sutherland spent years on Baffin Island, uncovering ground-breaking evidence that Norse explorers had been in the Arctic earlier and for longer than anyone had previously thought. Her research made headlines in scientific circles, and garnered media attention including a feature in the National Geographic and a documentary on CBC’s The Nature of Things.

“I had expected that they would be pleased because this kind of media attention is rare for archaeologists, in Canada anyway,” she said. “I had hoped that it would be seen as beneficial to the museum and that it would certainly help promote continuation of the research.”

But if Sutherland expected celebration over media publicity from her employer, the Museum of Civilization, she was in for a disappointment.

The federal government planned to rebrand the museum to the Museum of Canadian History. And it seemed her archaeology project didn’t fit the new identity.

“Whereas the Museum of Civilization’s mandate was to increase Canadians and the world’s critical understanding of cultural events in history, we’re now reversing that,” said Turk, with the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

“They’re turning it into a glorified Madame Tussauds wax museum, or a Canadian Hockey Hall of Fame view of history.”

In 2012, Sutherland was dismissed by her employer after investigators prepared a report for the museum outlining a litany of complaints from former colleagues. Her research project was shut down. Since then, she has not been able to access her decades of scholarly work by the museum.

“What’s even more troubling is not only is she let go, but she’s denied access to the material she needs to continue her work,” Turk said.

“I think her case illustrates pretty dramatically some of the problems with the politicization of science, the politicization of these kinds of matters.”