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What Should be the Goal of Government-Funded Science?


Earlier today, a group of scientists marched through Ottawa as a protest against the federal Conservative government’s attack on science in Canada.  More specifically, they protested against the enactment of policies that weaken or abolish environmental protection, cut funding to important research and limit the public’s access to government scientists.

Although the federal government says that any cuts made are for the sake of balancing the budget, Canadian climate scientist Andrew Weaver does not agree:

It’s not about saving money. It’s about imposing ideology.  What’s happening here is that the government has an ideological agenda to develop the Canadian economy based on the extraction of oil out of the Alberta tar sands as quickly as possible and sell it as fast as it can, come hell and high water, and eliminate any barriers that stand in their way.

I would argue that it goes beyond the Tar Sands.  But, the general idea stands.

This government’s goal is to create a resource-based economy – oil, gas, minerals.  And in order to do so, it is removing any obstacles in its way and controlling the information Canadians have access to regarding industrial projects.  For example, government scientists cannot openly speak to the media without getting approval from their respective minister.  So if a scientist has discovered that the tailings from a certain mine is causing a reduction in salmon population, the federal government decides when (if) that scientist speaks to the media about his or her research. (A similar type of scientist “muzzling” policy was put in place by former US president George W. Bush.)

Then there is the closing of important research facilities.

The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is a research facility that includes 58 small lakes set aside for “ecosystem-scale experimental investigations and long-term monitoring of ecosystem processes.”   According to Queen’s University biologist John Smol, “People working at ELA are constantly finding reasons why you can’t just put a pipeline here, or an industry there, because there are going to be environmental costs.”  Information coming from this facility should be critical in making decisions about industry.  However, the 2 million dollars a year needed to fund the facility is being cut.

Arial photo of the water bodies of the ELA.  Photo: University of Guelph

Aerial photo of the water bodies of the ELA. Photo: University of Guelph

There is also the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Nunavut, which is responsible for studying ozone depletion as well as the impacts of climate change in the Arctic.  Considering the state of our climate, the 1.5 million dollars a year Laboratory should be considered a necessity.  However, PEARL has also been deemed to expensive by our government.

Photo of the PEARL station in Nunavut.  Photo: Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change

Photo of the PEARL station in Nunavut. Photo: Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change

Then we have the infamous Bill C-38.

C-38 guts Canada’s strongest environmental law, the Canadian Oceans and Fisheries Act, by reducing the requirements on mining and other industries to protect fish habitats.  C-38 also abolishes the group in charge of monitoring emissions from power plants, furnaces, boilers and other sources of emissions.  It cuts government scientist positions, pollution control programs, research grants, even the Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science.

To be fair, the federal Conservative government has countered by saying that it has made “historic investments in science and technology as well as in research to create jobs and grow the economy and improve the quality of life for Canadians.” (My emphasis)  And that is the point.  The government is investing in research that will have direct industrial applications.  Things like 105 million dollars for the marketing of forest products as well as billions of dollars for the development carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology.

But should that be the role of government-funded research?  At a time when ecosystems around the planet are collapsing and climate change threatens our way of life, should the goal of government-funded science be to support industry?

In my opinion: NO.

Instead, I believe that one of the goals of government-funded science should be pure scientific research.  Such research will rarely be funded by the private sector because it rarely has immediate industrial implications.  However, pure scientific research is important because it helps us better understand the world (and the universe) we live in and it often leads to industrial applications.  For example, discovering the structure of the atom had no industrial use in and of itself.  But, most of today’s industrial processes were developed thanks to the chemistry that arose from our knowledge of the atom.

Finally, I believe that the more important goal of government-funded science should be to give our population and our politicians unbiased information that helps us create policies and regulations. Such information should include (but not be limited to) the condition of our air, our water and our soil.  It should include the health of natural ecosystems on which our society depends in order to function (although we rarely like to admit it).  And it should include the real health and ecological impacts of industry.

The only way to create proper regulations that will protect our health and our environment, while also allowing industry to become sustainable, is with unbiased scientific research.  And it is only by having a truly well-informed population that our democratic system can create such regulations.  So, in a very real way, the goal of government-funded science should be to help our democracy to work.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Martin Lack permalink
    2012/07/12 12:59 pm

    Scientists not allowed to speak to the media? This sounds very similar to the situation James Hansen run into at NASA George W Bush was still in power.

    • 2012/07/12 4:06 pm

      I wouldn’t be surprised if President Bush’s policy was the “inspiration” for our policy.

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