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