I've known since the age of eight that I would be a writer, but biology was the subject which came in at a close second. The first book I read in college was Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, for a first-year university biology course. To many Dawkins is the leading advocate of "militant atheism," and for this reason one may fail to notice that his campaign on behalf of science -- necessarily a campaign against anti-science -- is defensive in nature. But who would have thought even a decade ago that science would be in need of defence? These were my thoughts last week, as I participated in Stand Up for Science, an initiative of an agency called Evidence for Democracy.
Anti-science developments of recent years are global and various. They include the resurgence of Twelver Islam (as well as of less-noted but equally radical eschatologists within Judaism and Christianity), the equal time campaign on behalf of intelligent design, the silencing and defunding of scientists and scientific initiatives (especially in the fields of climate and environmental science), the growing conspiracy theories concerning medicine and medical science and the related rise of "natural" medicine. In some parts of the world there exists an effort to supplant the haram of science with the halal of holy writ, and in others, hard-won gains of rational inquiry are to be sacrificed to economic growth. One encounters with dismay the daily evidence that science is indeed under attack.
The preceding list is partial and could, and will be, expanded. You have noticed yourself that every morning paper and evening program delivers fresh instalments of pseudoscience, conspiracy and anti-science indignation. On the day that I read of a Texas mega-church -- where vaccines are believed to be linked to autism and where unvaccinated children have as a result contracted measles -- an email arrived from another parent warning me of the dangers of our children's school's immunization day.
Also at this time I was directed to the story of Eugenie C. Scott, who fights the teaching of creationism in schools. Now at the point of retirement, she'll likely vacate the field with much of the battle remaining. To date, Canada has been spared the creationists' assault upon natural selection, the chief opponent of disinterested scientific study in this country being the federal cabinet of Stephen Harper. The government has placed the science and technology portfolio into the hands of a former nurse and lawyer, Greg Rickford, whose only qualification appears to be loyalty to the Prime Minister's industry-focused and expedient research agenda.
The scientific method of inquiry has made possible our many material comforts and has advanced our health, opened our minds and inspired our imaginations. Through it we have fostered the conditions which may at last liberate our species from deprivation, fear, superstition and ignorance. How could anyone object to an outcome like this? The answers are many, but among them is the fact that scientific inquiry produces inconveniences. The cause of religious bigotry is hindered when rational inquiry into our biological nature advances. Our knowledge of DNA reveals that race is an invention and that we are brothers and sisters, all humans being, beneath our skin, the children of Africa. Science is often a corrosive agent where political and religious dogma are concerned: as a result, rational inquiry is rightly perceived as a threat to those whose bread is buttered on the wages of credulity and unquestioning obedience. Behind every anti-science bully is an income derived from the pulpit, the pipeline and the placebo. A little knowledge really is a dangerous thing.
For this reason the threats to rational and disinterested inquiry are manifold. For this reason, science is today engaged in a global confrontation with those who want the apocalypse to come, and soon. Why study the world and learn about our place in it when all is soon coming to an end? Why trust science when it tells us that our lives are the outcome of material forces, rather than of the will and planning of a creator? And why forward the taxpayers' dollars to scientists, when their inconvenient findings undermine the plans of industry and interfere with the government's economic agenda?
The answer to these questions is that many of our advances were purchased for us through scientific study. It may be that the world does not end for the anticipated reasons. What then? We will require knowledge and technology to survive and succeed. Some knowledge is a source of present dangers (nuclear science, for example), but it does not follow from this fact that ignorance or retreat will help. Our dignity and our human potential will be much better served by scientific inquiry than by political expedience or religious dogma or folklore. I'm happy to stand up for science, but I'm not happy that I feel I have to.
A selection of programs and research facilities being closed, downsized or in jeopardy due to federal funding cuts or policy changes made by the Conservative government.
May be forced to close in 2014 if new funding isn't secured due to moratorium on the Major Resources Support Program (MRS) at Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Several of the following MRS cuts are detailed in a <a href="http://kennedystewart.ndp.ca/sites/default/files/kennedystewart.ndp.ca/field_attached_files/mrs_program_moratorium_impact_report_0.pdf" target="_blank">report by the office of NDP MP Kennedy Stewart</a>, opposition critic for science and technology.
Losing a third of his research budget, worth about $500,000 a year. The money runs out April 1, 2014 due to MRS moratorium at NSERC.
Canada’s only icebreaker dedicated to research has received $2.8 million in total MRS funding. Moratorium on MRS will result in far less research and higher costs to charter; loss of four technicians out of six.
The government announced the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area run by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in northwestern Ontario. The cuts will save it about $2 million a year — although <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/19/experimental-lakes-area-tories-scientists_n_2910022.html" target="_blank">sources told The Canadian Press</a> the actual operating cost of the facility is about $600,000 annually, of which a third comes back in user fees. (The Ontario government, working with Ottawa, Manitoba and others,<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/04/24/ontario-ela-open-for-year_n_3146662.html" target="_blank"> announced April 24 that it would help keep ELA open</a>). The facility, an outdoor laboratory consisting of 58 lakes, laboratories and living quarters, has been in operation since 1968 and is credited with helping solve North America’s acid rain problem in the 1970s and 1980s among other breakthroughs in areas of toxic contaminants, algae and flooding by reservoirs.
$1.27-million shortfall due MRS moratorium. Training for users and students will be scaled back significantly.
High precision measurement of radiocarbon and other trace radionuclides for geological dating and tracing in the earth and environmental sciences. Operation in jeopardy. The facility recently received $16 million in funding from the Ontario government and Canadian Foundation for Innovation to set up new geoscience labs at the University of Ottawa. It was counting on $125,000 per year from MRS to maintain operations. That funding was to increase with new facilities. "It is shameful that our main funding organization for the sciences has decided that it should withdraw from supporting solid empirical research through funding laboratories," a spokesperson said.
The Kluane Lake facility, one of Canada's oldest research facilities, lost $106,000 due to MRS cuts. The facility is run by the Arctic Institute of North America, a joint U.S.-Canada research operation that is administered by the University of Calgary along with the University of Alaska, <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2012/07/10/f-kluane-glacier-research.html" target="_blank">CBC reports</a>.
Launched by the Liberal government under Jean Chrétien in 2000, the foundation awarded more than $100 million in grants for university-led research. In 2011, the federal government’s first omnibus budget bill killed the foundation. At the time, the government said it would replace some of the funds with $35 million to be distributed through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) over five years for all climate research activities.
Located on Ellesmere Island near Eureka, Nunavut, it is one of the most remote weather stations in the world and does key research on climate change, ozone and air quality. Closed after it lost $1.5 million in annual funding due to the closure of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences.
MRS moratorium means the centre no longer has an open door policy for Canadian researchers or a special reduced NSERC rate for research conducted by Canadians in the labs. "The long-term prognosis for the geochronology labs is not good," a spokesperson said.
Program in jeopardy due to MRS moratorium, <a href="http://kennedystewart.ndp.ca/sites/default/files/kennedystewart.ndp.ca/field_attached_files/mrs_program_moratorium_impact_report_0.pdf" target="_blank">according to the NDP</a>.
The facility will close without MRS funding, leaving $10 million in capital equipment idle, including the only Canadian-based 900 MHz Bruker Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer,<a href="http://kennedystewart.ndp.ca/sites/default/files/kennedystewart ndp.ca/field_attached_files/mrs_program_moratorium_impact_report 0.pdf" target="_blank"> according to the NDP</a>.
The office, created in 2004 by the Liberal government of Paul Martin and led by Arthur Carty, pictured, was intended to provide independent expert advice to the prime minister on matters of national policy related to science, ranging from nanotechnology, high energy particle physics and ocean technologies to climate change and the environment. The Harper government closed the office in 2008.
Funding for the arm's length, independent advisory group was cut in the 2011 budget and the group wound down in 2012. Since 1988, it had been producing research on how business and government policies can work together for sustainable development — including the idea of introducing carbon taxes. The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/14/national-round table-on-the-environment-and-the-economy-funding_n_1516240.html" target="_blank">Tories confirmed they cut funding because of the group's focus on carbon taxes</a>.