It will take a decade to undo the harm the federal government has done to science and environmental policy in Canada, says David Schindler, one of the world’s leading authorities on freshwater and marine ecosystems.
In a 50-year scientific career path shared between academia and government, Schindler directed the Experimental Lakes Area of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans before becoming a tenured professor of ecology at the University of Alberta.
“There is a huge public sentiment among scientists that the Harperites must go, for reasons ranging from cutting funding for environmental science to destroying libraries to denying people the information they need to make democratic choices that include decisions on extraction industries and climate,” says Schindler.
Many are already speaking out, and more will as the election nears, he added.
The Experimental Lakes Area, whose projects Schindler directed for more than 30 years, is an internationally unique environmental research facility that has influenced freshwater management policy around the world.
“ELA’s science has underpinned simple controls for excess nutrients and acid rain that have saved billions of dollars in resources,” explains Schindler.
Compounds containing phosphorous or nitrogen translocated to aquatic systems through
industrial/domestic run-off and agriculture can cause blooms of algae, tainted drinking water supply and loss of fish habitat.
According to Schindler, the process of eliminating phosphorous from lakes, discovered through ELA
research, has been less expensive and more efficient than scientists were ready to believe 50 years ago.
“As a result of the ELA experiments, we now have mostly recovered the Great Lakes and many other economically important water bodies,” he added.
But even though the ELA’s work saved the federal government billions of dollars and improved the state of Canada’s lakes and their watersheds through its scientific research, its funding was abruptly axed by the Harper government in 2012.
Many other world-renowned research facilities met the same fate, including the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL).
The ELA has now secured alternative funding sources to ensure its long-term operation. But Schindler argues the federal government was short-sighted in its decision to defund the ELA.
He says he doesn’t buy into the line that the cuts were necessary to tame the deficit.
“Harperites need to learn to look at both sides of the ledger,” says Schindler, who adds he does not call the ruling government ‘Conservatives’ since he believes them to be much less responsible on environmental and democracy issues than former Progressive Conservatives.
“I believe the federal government should have the primary responsibility for environmental monitoring and educating the public, a role that it has traditionally played,” he says.
According to Schindler, a world-class monitoring program for the environment is a complicated interdisciplinary science with ever-changing methods.
“One cannot build a 50 year monitoring program on a succession of three-year science students or on short-cycle funding,” he argues. “And absolute transparency (by the government) is essential. Scientists should be free to tell the public what their science suggests.”
What he sees happening now in Canada is federal decision-makers launching policies while ignoring the science and keeping that science from citizens. He also claims it is clear that commercial interests are playing a significant role in driving public research initiatives.
“There’s been a dramatic shift from ‘curiosity-driven’ science and science to protect the environment
to that which helps companies produce new widgets for profit,” says Schindler. “Support for in-house government science in the environmental science fields has diminished. Retired scientists are not replaced and important projects like ELA no longer get federal support.”
In response to funding cuts for research facilities like ELA and PEARL, numerous federal science library closures, and the scrapping of key data sets like the mandatory long-form census, many concerned citizens and groups have publicly expressed their dissatisfaction with the current government’s approach to funding research and knowledge.
In June, the CBC reported that one of Canada’s top neuroscience researchers is leaving the country, citing the federal government’s diminished view of “discovery science” as cause for his departure.
Even though Rob Brownstone received federal support of almost $2 million last year for his research, he said he’s not encouraged by funding now focusing more on applied research.
Like many other academic and government researchers, he sees the lack of support for curiosity-driven research as endangering the future of scientific research in Canada.
“I’m concerned we’re going to lose the culture of knowledge and the culture of the importance of knowledge,” Brownstone told CBC host Carol Off, in an interview.
“The Conservative government’s approach to science policy has failed,” says Sylvain Schetagne, CAUT’s director of research and political action. He said CAUT has heard “endless stories from academic researchers” experiencing first-hand the degradation of Canada’s scientific capacity.
“Success rates for research grants are down, business investment in research and development has decreased drastically, the voluntary household survey that replaced the long-form census does not provide reliable demographic data — the list goes on and on,” he said.
Schetagne says Canada’s academic staff will be speaking out during the federal election to get candidates to commit to a new direction for science policy through CAUT’s Get Science Right campaign.
The campaign highlights four key issues: Canada’s current science and technology strategy is not delivering the promised investments and jobs; funding decisions need to be free from corporate and political influence; evidence, not ideology should inform policy; and government scientists must be
For more information, visit the campaign website at GetScienceRight.ca