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J.J. McCullough


Media Bites: Want to Hear How Harper Hates Science? Watch CBC

Posted: 01/13/2014 11:11 am

If your social networks include even a few members of the left-of-centre set, chances are you've been recently bombarded with a flurry of sensationalistic CBC exposés about the latest strikes in Stephen Harper's Big Fat War on Science™. On Friday, CBC.ca ran a story under the headline "Research Cutbacks by Government Alarm Scientists" that generated over 8,000 shares; an accompanying Fifth Estate documentary  --  rather cheesily titled "The Silence of the Labs"  --  yielded another 31,000.

Both pieces tell harrowing tales of the "more than 2,000 scientists, and hundreds of programs" terminated under the Tories, including some involved in monitoring pollution and climate change. The country's science leaders are deeply "concerned" says the CBC, "that Canadians will suffer if their elected leaders have to make policy decisions without the benefit of independent, fact-based science."

In the wake of recent budget cuts and, more damagingly, the loss of Hockey Night in Canada, many have wondered how our state broadcaster plans to stay afloat in such dire times. If their coverage of the government science beat is any indication, we now have our answer: pander hard to their progressive base.

The idea that Canada's current government has been waging a nihilistic jihad against tax-funded scientific research has long been one of the most beloved shibboleths of the Canadian left, I assume because it allows them to unload so many fun anti-Conservative slurs: ignorant, ideological, dogmatic, etc. Silence of the Labs certainly had no shortage of snippy one-liners: the Harperites were said to be unleashing "a bitter conflict between ideology and knowledge" and a "sacrifice of scientific knowledge on the alter of political expediency" spawned from their "obsessive political focus on the economy" at the expense of all things clean and clever. (It should go without saying that these words were spoken amid lots of scary music and footage of lights being turned off.)

Arriving at such extreme conclusions is not easy. Between 2006 and 2011, after all, the Harper administration increased federal funding for science and technology every year  --  a $9 billion spike, according to the braggy "Investing in World-Class Research and Innovation" chapter of Minister Flaherty's 2013 budget. Even following a slight dip post-2011, overall annual funding still remain billions higher than in the Liberal years, and as Minister Rempel angrily reminded a Twitter troll the other day, the Conservatives are still funnelling tonnes of tax dollars to a vast assortment of science-themed bureaucracies across the land, many of which they themselves founded.

Canada likewise ranks near the top of the G7 on a host of OCED science-funding related indicators, including percentage of gross domestic expenditures on research and development financed by government (third) and percentage performed by public universities (first).

Indeed, if anything, the government is simply struggling to match supply with demand in a country's that's among the most science-obsessed on earth. As Maclean's science blogger Julia Belluz noted in an even-handed column on the "Scientists Vs. Harper" controversy a couple years ago, one of the underlying roots of this whole conflict is that "there are now more scientists working in Canada -- a 23 per cent increase between 2002 and 2007 -- so competition for dollars is now more intense."

Do I seem like a Tory hack cherry-picking these facts? Perhaps, but at the very least they expose a nuance in the state of science in Harper's Canada that's deliberately absent from the CBC's coverage, which exclusively cherry-picks in the opposite direction.

No one likes to get fired or have their job eliminated, particularly when that job's involved spending a decade on a project that will now never see completion. Yet the unfortunate reality is that governments have a finite number of dollars to spread around, and in a democratic political system, we task our elected leaders with prioritizing some projects over others. Do Prime Minister Harper's science priorities reflect the best interests of Canada? It's certainly a question worth asking, but you won't find the answer by interviewing the folks guaranteed to have the most biased perspective: laid-off scientists and the left-wing union that represents them. Though that's the CBC's preferred approach.

The supposed plight of archeologist Pat Sutherland --  one of the stars of the CBC's coverage  --  provides a particularly good case study. She spent years working for the Museum of Canadian History on an exhibit about early contact between Norse Vikings and the Inuit of Baffin Island. But she was apparently a bad employee (Silence of the Labs makes brief mention of a 445-page report on her alleged harassment of co-workers) and her exhibit ceased to be relevant when the museum's mandate changed.

So in 2012 both got the axe. Dr. Sutherland's miserable and conspiratorial about this, and understandably so. But firing her was the sort of rational decision governments  --  and indeed, all employers  --  have to make every day as they seek to efficiently allocate limited resources in the pursuit of specific goals. A government worker's personal passion for her job does not automatically make that job worth keeping (nor does it demonstrate her competence), and in a democracy it's dangerous to argue otherwise. As it is for unelected scientists to decree, as many of the other CBC darlings clearly want to, definitive conclusions to subjective policy debates, like whether the environmental consequences of natural resource extraction are a price worth paying for economic growth.

It's not surprising that partisan foes of the Conservatives would ignore the complex tensions governing the relationship between scientist and state in favour of a catchier narrative of a benighted prime minister waging a crusade of ignorance against hapless scholars. Knowing who provides the bulk of their audience, it's not surprising that the CBC would either.

Considering we're supposed to be talking about a war on facts, it is a tad ironic, though.


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