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.”

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