Inspired by this list of Harper’s cuts to science, I thought I would make a series of blog posts looking at all the cuts, why they are harmful to our society, and what we can do about them today.
I will start with the early days of the Harper government. One of the first bits of science that Harper attacked was the one that he probably noticed first, the National Science Advisor. Literally, this guy (Arthur Carty) was hired for the explicit task of providing the Prime Minister with a scientific perspective on the issues of the day.
Harper didn’t put up with this for long. Shortly after gaining power, he changed the role of the Science Advisor so he would no longer report to the Prime Minister, but to Industry Canada. This is problematic right away. First, Harper was distancing himself from science advice. This would be like Captain Kirk booting Spock off the Bridge and having him report to Scotty instead. Spock is kept on the Bridge because his insight is needed quickly. A Prime Minister also needs to respond rapidly to issues as they come up, and to do that properly, he needs to have a scientist that he can consult with at any time.
Second, the move implies that science is only relevant to Industry. It ignores the fact that science affects every ministry of government. Agriculture is done with advanced machinery, genetically modified food, long-range weather prediction, and modern knowledge of human resources. Why not have the Science Advisor report to the Minister of Agriculture?
Or what about crime? The science of psychology, forensic investigation, weaponry, prison-design, protective vests, and knowing the latest tools that criminals have at their disposal all depends on science! Why not have the Science Advisor report to the Minister of Justice?
Harper seems to only value science’s direct contributions to industry, and is either unaware of the contributions it makes elsewhere, or otherwise doesn’t value them.
But things get worse.
After another year of the Science Advisor warning about silly things like climate change, the government decided to eliminate the office altogether. Arthur Carty saw that he was about to get fired, so he announced his resignation from public service.
It should be noted that the government made it sound at the time like Carty had simply grown old and decided to retire, and the government only considered eliminating the position after the resignation had been announced. But this was spin on their part. Harper was going to fire Carty if he didn’t leave peacefully.
Carty was credited with being very helpful in creating the Council of Canadian Academies, which received a $30 million grant from the government of Canada before Harper arrived, which has been using that funding to create a series of important and useful reports assessing the state of Canada’s resources and innovation. By all accounts (including public statements from the Conservatives), Carty did a great job, and he could have done more if he had been allowed to stay on for a few more years.
Harper has made serious mistakes as a result of not having a Science Advisor by his side. He overruled the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission when it warned that a nuclear reactor would need to be shut down for maintenance. (The reactor later had to be shut down anyway). He failed to recognize that monitoring of the tar sands was horribly inadequate until multiple scientific bodies made it so obvious that the general public caught on. And he seems to be oblivious to the fact that in the 2020′s and 2030′s, the technology we use today will be obsolete, and Canada needs to make research investments to keep up. Having a Science Advisor by his side could save Harper from making these kinds of errors.
If you agree that getting rid of this advisor was a mistake, send an email to the Prime Minister asking him to bring the position of National Science Advisor back. There’s no reason we can’t restore this office, and it’s clear that we need it.