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.  

This week, scientists went public with concerns that irreplaceable science could be lost when Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) libraries are closed. DFO plans to shut down seven of its 11 libraries by 2015. Already, stories have emerged about books and reports thrown into dumpsters and the general public being allowed to rummage through bookshelves.

The government responded that the information will not disappear. On Monday, DFO told CBC News that “all of its copyrighted material has been digitized and that the rest of its collection will be soon.”

"Users will continue to have completely free access to every item in DFO’s collections. All materials for which DFO has copyright will be preserved by the department," Fisheries Minister Gail Shea wrote in a statement to CBC.

But Turk says the problem is not just the loss of existing library collections.

“It also means that going forward, whether it be policy analysts or scientists or members of the public, there won’t be a library there that collects material for them to use. So there’s not only the danger of losing what we’ve had, which may be irreplaceable, but it’s also in future, that resource isn’t going to be there in the first place.”

Informed decisions

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."

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.

“Canadians are going to have their government have to make policies based on much less fact and data and information, it’s going to be more ideologically driven,” Turk said.

“It means that individuals who want information, that information is simply not going to be there because they [government librarians] don’t collect it anymore, or where it is collected, the libraries are closed or the accessibility to them is reduced.”

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.

It is the lack of climate change research and monitoring in the High Arctic that worries Tom Duck. He 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. 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.

Science vs. economics

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 many 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 Peter Phillips, a specialist in public policy and science at the University of Saskatchewan, argues 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.”

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Russia Has A Space Army - But It's Not Ready To Fight Aliens

    Russia said that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/10/04/russian-space-army_n_4042456.html">its space army</a>, which <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/10/04/russian-space-army_n_4042456.html"> actually exists</a>, is doing pretty well thank you very much. But no, it isn't currently able to repel an alien invasion. "We are unfortunately not ready to fight extraterrestrial civilizations," said deputy chief of the Titov Main Test and Space Systems Control Centre Sergey Berezhnoy. "There are too many problems on Earth and near it."

  • This Frog Photobombed A NASA Space Launch

    Nasa l<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/09/12/frog-nasa-photobomb-rocket_n_3911828.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-tech" target="_blank">aunched the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer spacecraft back in September</a>, and while the £180 million craft is actually a pretty interesting scientific instrument, the launch itself was totally overshadowed by the fact that a frog managed to Photobomb the moment of lift-off <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/09/12/frog-nasa-photobomb-rocket_n_3911828.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-tech" target="_blank">with this frankly unbelievably well-timed dive into legend.</a>

  • The Universe Could Have Already Started Collapsing

    "Maybe the collapse has already started somewhere in the universe and right now it is eating its way into the rest of the universe. Maybe a collapse is starting right now right here. Or maybe it will start far away from here in a billion years." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/12/13/universe-collapse-phase-transition_n_4437807.html" target="_blank">That is an actual quote</a> from Colding Krog, University of Southern Denmark, after the news that a phase transition in the value of the Higgs Field could tear apart reality <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/12/13/universe-collapse-phase-transition_n_4437807.html" target="_blank">might have already started.</a>

  • Nasa Drew A Penis On Mars

    While attempting to find signs of life on our nearest alien planet, Nasa <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/04/24/mars-rover-penis-nasa_n_3144656.html">"accidentally"</a> drew a penis on Mars. It was objectively hilarious, even if it was also totally unavoidable.

  • The Universe Is A Simulation

    This year we learned that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/10/11/physicists-may-have-evide_n_1957777.html"> physicists might have evidence that the universe is a computer simulation</a>. The team at University of Bonn in Germany wrote in their paper, 'Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation', that that current simulations of the universe - which do exist, but which are extremely weak and small - naturally put limits on physical laws. And those limits are pretty similar to those in our own universe. None of you freaked out when we told you that. Oh no, wait, like 298,000 of you did.

  • A Train In Japan Travelled At 311 Miles Per Hour

    It's no <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/08/13/elon-musk-hyperloop-uk-design_n_3747385.html">hyperloop</a>. But <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/08/30/super-bullet-train-test_n_3843685.html">it's not bad.</a>

  • A Town In Norway Built Three Massive Mirrors To Reflect Sunlight During Dark Winter Months

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/10/24/norwegian-town-three-massive-mirrors-sunlight-_n_4154074.html">The town of Rjukan is home to 3,500 people who don't get enough sun during winter.</a> So naturally they took it upon themselves to build three enormous mirrors to reflect sun back onto the town at a cost of £523,400.

  • An Astronaut Fought A Robot In Space

    Among the various nice things which happened on the International Space Station this year, including <a href="http://www.theguardian.com/science/video/2013/may/13/hadfield-david-bowie-space-oddity-video">a friendly Canadian singing David Bowie covers</a>, there was also a fair amount of deadly violence and bloodshed. Alright, not really. But if this picture is to be believed, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/04/24/astronaut-vs-robonaut-2-o_n_3146113.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-tech">at least one astronaut had a fight with a robot</a>.

  • Two Australians Had Sex (Or Didn't) On Street View

    This image, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/04/11/australian-couple-sex-google-street-view_n_3058977.html">captured from Google Street View</a> pictures taken on Dukes Highway in Keith, South Australia, shows a couple either (a) having a very good day unaware that the Google car was driving past or (b) having a very good day at Google's expense. Either way, it is a very funny picture which only technology was able to provide.

  • There's A Big Asteroid Which Might Hit Earth In 2032

    This year was marked not only <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/10/18/asteroid-2013-tv135-hit-e_n_4120490.html">by terrifying predictions of big rocks from space</a> which might hit us in 2032, but <a href="www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/02/15/russian-meteor-conspiracy_n_2694031.html">by actual space rocks which did hit us</a> (specifically Chelyabinsk in Russia) in 2013. Luckily, on the former Nasa is pretty convinced we're safe for now. "The current probability of no impact in 2032 [is] about 99.998 percent," said Don Yeomans, manager of Nasa's Near-Earth Object Program Office."This is a relatively new discovery. With more observations, I fully expect we will be able to significantly reduce, or rule out entirely, any impact probability for the foreseeable future."

  • Someone Kinda Found Han Solo Frozen In Carbonite On Mercury

    This thing - which really, really looks like Han Solo frozen in Carbonite but WHICH IS NOT Han Solo frozen in Carbonite <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/09/20/han-solo-mercury_n_3959937.html">was found on the surface of Mercury this year.</a>

  • Area 51 Actually Exists

    This was the year that the American government <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/08/16/area-51-exists_n_3765873.html" target="_blank">finally admitted that Area 51</a> - the almost mythical military 'UFO facility' - actually exists. True, they explicitly denied anything to do with aliens is actually going on there - but surely it's only a matter of time? The released documents said: <blockquote>"President Eisenhower also approved the addition of this strip of wasteland, known by its map designation as Area 51, to the Nevada Test Site. The outlines of Area 51 are shown on current unclassified maps as a small rectangular area adjoining the northeast corner of the much larger Nevada Test Site."</blockquote>

  • The Earth Is More Beautiful Than You Ever Realised

    This is the 'Green Marble' - <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/06/21/green-marble-earth-nasa_n_3478261.html" target="_blank">a new visualisation of all of the vegetation on Earth</a>, made by Nasa this year to celebrate the fact that it <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/10/18/asteroid-2013-tv135-hit-e_n_4120490.html" target="_blank">hasn't yet been totally devastated by another asteroid.</a>

  • Scientists Accidentally Invented An 'Impossible Material' Called Upsalite

    Researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden apparently <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/08/14/upsalite-impossible-material_n_3753742.html" target="_blank">left an experiment running over a weekend</a> - by mistake - only to return to their work to find they had solved a century-old problem. The result of their - well, not quite 'work'… - is "Upsalite", a material that has remarkable abilities to bind water, and could be used in <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/08/14/upsalite-impossible-material_n_3753742.html" target="_blank">everything from air conditioning units to chemical manufacturing.</a>

  • Parkour Hit New Heights Of Insane Thanks To GoPro

    GoPro's heads-up cameras got even better - twice - this year, thanks to the release of the Hero 3 and Hero 3+. At which point a man named <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/07/01/james-kingston-cambridge-parkour_n_3527557.html">James Kingston</a> went out in Cambridge and risked his life in a totally reckless way in the name of collecting cool footage.

  • Someone Lost $4.6 Million Of Bitcoin In Wales

    Bitcoin got very popular this year - primarily because it also got very valuable (and then cheap, and then valuable again, and then cheap again). Unfortunately for one man, the rise in value also led to a rise in his blood pressure, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/11/27/bitcoin-buried-wales-46-million_n_4350267.html">after it was revealed he managed to bury £4.6 million worth in this landfill in Wales</a>.

  • Bill Gates Apologised For CTRL-ALT-DELTE

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/09/26/bill-gates-ctrl-alt-delete_n_3995267.html" target="_blank">At last.</a>

  • Robots Can Solve Rubik's Cubes In Less Than One Second

    A video released by robotics researchers this year proved that our android masters have finally beaten us at every useful job in the world, and are now <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/09/30/rubiks-cube-one-second-robot_n_4015284.html" target="_blank">turning their mind to humiliating us at pointless 1980s fads in order to pass the time.</a>

  • The First Plane Flew Over The UK Without A Pilot

    This is a picture of a plane. A plane which made a complete flight over the UK while its pilots <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/05/14/first-pilotless-flight-ov_n_3270749.html" target="_blank">sat and did nothing, because it's a robot, and that's terrifying, but science.</a>

  • It's Possible To See Your Brainwaves

    Stare at the pinwheel for a few seconds then look at a spot slightly away from it. You should be able to see the centre of the pinwheel flicker when it's in your peripheral vision. Only this is more than just a pretty effect - Rodika Sokoliuk and Rufin VanRullen from the University of Toulouse told us this year that this is actually <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/08/22/optical-illusion-brain-waves_n_3794108.html">a representation of your brainwaves.</a>

  • The Sun's Polarity Can Flip (And Is About To)

    This year we learned that the Sun's entire magnetic field is on the verge of flipping over. Scientists are convinced the source of all life on Earth will shortly reverse polarity, an event that will be felt throughout the entire solar system. But don't worry - this is a regular occurrence, happening over a few months every 11 years or so.