In this issue, we ran an article on the potential closure of the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario and how this is just the latest salvo in the Harper Government’s war on science. For it, I had a chance to interview Thomas Duck, an atmospheric scientist from Dalhousie University.
It was a really informative conversation but I only had room in the article for a few quotes from it. So, here’s a transcript of the complete interview….
prairie dog: What is your feeling about the Harper Government’s treatment of science?
Thomas Duck: It’s quite clear that they’re executing what I would call a war on the environment and a war on science. The very foundations of science in this country are being shaken. It’s falling down around us. This is due to draconian cuts to many different government departments, to research funding organizations, and the like.
Really, it’s a catastrophe for Canadian science.
pd: Have you been hit personally?
TD: Sure. Everyone has. Most people active in science right now have not been untouched by these cuts. Certainly, anyone working in the environment.
If you’re working, of course you’re probably working with Environment Canada or groups like this and they’ve been decimated. There are very large and important research programs at Environment Canada that are now just no more.
There was also the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CSCAS), which is no more. There was a replacement fund announced in budget 2011, although the replacement funds weren’t nearly what CSCAS was providing and those funds have remained stuck as far as we can tell at the Treasury Board for a whole year. And the government recently announced their climate change and atmospheric research program — those aren’t going to deliver funds for at least another nine months. And so, of course, this means that all of those programs that were previously supported at universities in atmospheric science are now suffering a funding gap of probably going on to two years by the time the funding is actually delivered.
People have this funny need to be paid so that they can eat and afford shelter. And so when there’s a funding gap like this, what happens is that all of the people that you support in the scientific enterprise end up leaving Canada. And they’re not coming back. And that’s tragic.
pd: How significant are cuts to Canadian climate science in the global context?
TD: Well, I think that Canadians do some of the very, very best science in the world. Particularly in the arctic region. We’ve got some really major important projects, one of them being the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Lab, or PEARL, so this is the most northerly civilian research lab in the world. And it’s really spectacular. It’s world recognized as being the leading facility for experimental arctic research. Research that went on there included ozone depletion, climate change research, climate process research, arctic contaminants, any number of different things. And these have all largely stopped.
pd: PEARL is basically shut down?
TD: Yes. At the moment, I guess the PEARL closure announcement or at least the closure for ongoing continuous year-round measurements was announced a few months ago. I should be up front, I’m one of the people involved in that project. I know a fair bit about it. Right now, we’re in a bit of a holding pattern. Realize that the vast majority of the people who worked on that project are now gone. They’ve left the country. They’ve gone on to other things. We are trying to revive it. We have a little tiny bit of funding to keep the heat on. So that at least the whole thing doesn’t fall victim to the arctic elements, which are really severe once you get that far north.
pd: It’s in Eureka?
TD: Yes. So 80 degrees north. It’s just about as far north as you can go. There’s a tiny little bit of funding that remains that we can use to keep the lights on. But it’s not enough to do any science. And all of our scientists have largely left. So we’ve put in a proposal, or a letter of intent to this new program that the government has come up with, and maybe we can keep things alive until that comes through. If it comes through. But there’s certainly no guarantee of that.
pd: And when something like PEARL shuts down, there’s a gap in the data and you lose that continuity of research.
TD: Absolutely. Many of the measurements have stopped. Many of the measurements over this past winter were scaled down from what we were able to do before. So yeah, that’s a big problem.
pd: RADARSAT is also in trouble.
TD: Everything is in trouble. All the environmental sciences across Canada are in trouble. And in fact all science across Canada is in trouble. These cuts, the scope of these cuts are almost beyond comprehension. They touch absolutely everything. So yes, when you have the president of the MacDonald Dettwiler lamenting these cuts — this is the company that built the CanadArm, for crying out loud — when they come out decrying these cuts and the impact that it’s having on what they’re doing, it’s ample evidence that something really wrong is going on here.
pd: I think the public is largely unaware that Environment Canada scientists are being muzzled. But then people who do know might be a little suspicious of that idea or underestimate how significant things are. Seeing as you have dealings with Environment Canada scientists, how true is this story about muzzling?
There was a famous episode back in the fall where environment minister Peter Dent claimed that they don’t muzzle scientists. At which point, the Liberal environment critic, Kirsty Duncan pulled out a letter to, I believe, Margaret Munro at Postmedia saying that we aren’t going to allow this scientist to talk to you.
So there’s documented evidence. Of course, the case of [Department of Fisheries and Oceans’] scientist Kristi Miller, is the first scientist, very, very well known. [Postmedia’s Margaret Munro uncovered documents showing that Miller had been prevented by the Privy Council Office from speaking about her research into a serious disease infecting BC salmon stocks.]
There was also recently, at the International Polar Year Conference which many Environment Canada scientists went to. It was reported that the government sent minders to follow these people around.
pd: That sounds like something the Soviets would’ve done.
TD: In fact, Lawrence Martin said that he hadn’t seen this kind of thing since he was last reporting from the Soviet Union.
There’s even an email, I guess it was media relations to Environment Canada scientists telling them that we’re going to be following you around, monitoring and recording what you are saying to anyone in the media. So yeah. The evidence for muzzling is comprehensive. I find it hard to believe that they would ever make a claim that they don’t muzzle scientists. All the evidence indicates that they do.
pd: Why do people continue to do these jobs under these conditions?
TD: Well, you have to have a job. But these people are also professionals and they believe intensely in what they do. They believe intensely in the value of environmental monitoring. They believe intensely in the value of science. I mean, sound policy is informed by science. They realize that Canada needs the advice of experts. And if we are to at all be competitive in this globalized world, what they do is really important. They know it. And so they stay on the job and they hope to see a better day.
pd: I’ve heard the muzzling of scientists goes beyond Environment Canada. Wasn’t there a groundbreaking fungal research program at the University of Alberta that recently had to close?
TD: Yeah. One of the main funders of research in this country is NSERC, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. They have a couple of key programs that they had to shut down in light of the recent cuts. One of them is the Major Research Support program the MRS program. So the MRS program supported that fungal program. It supported an incredible number of programs across this country, including PEARL.
Basically, these guys at the MRS program support any major project in this country. So, it’s incredible. There was a letter from all of the MRS principle investigators for all the different projects which really outlined how many there were. It’s astonishing.
So yes, the cuts that they had. You know, it’s always portrayed as a reorganization. But you know the facts on the ground are that’s not what’s going on. We’re losing major support programs that really keep the activity of science going in this country. It’s falling down around us right now.
TD: It’s extremely dire. Sound policy is informed by science. There are a great many things that we need to know about in order to be able to properly make decisions that keep us competitive. This includes not only on economic matters but also environmental matters as well. A sound economy has a safe and healthy environment as its foundation.
You look at the ozone layer and it doesn’t matter what you’re doing economically, does it?
Environmental protection is a very big part of this. The whole activity of science has been fundamental to the success of western nations. Can we really be turning our backs on science in the 21st century? Really?
It’s beyond belief that Canada, as an advanced society, would be turning its back on science. Particularly given all of the threats that we face right now. Surely we must want to know about things like climate change. Surely we must want to know about things like ozone depletion. Our very survival depends on it.
pd: Tell me about the Save Environment Canada Facebook page.
TD: That Facebook page is terrific. It’s a project that I follow quite closely. What these folks are doing is that they seem to be pulling all of the different media reports and giving them a centralized place where they can be found. The site provides all of the latest breaking, interesting Canadian environment and policy news. And it’s also a place to discuss it as well. You can see that the discussions are increasing on that as well. The other thing that they have been doing is they have been providing videos from question period every day in the House of Commons when there’s questions concerning the environment. This fulfills a really terrific public education role. The public can actually watch these things, watch what the government and the opposition critics are saying about these problems. And it’s incredibly informative.
I also conducted equally interesting interviews with U of R biologist Britt Hall and UVic climatologist Andrew Weaver and will post transcripts of those soon.