Prime Minister Stephen Harper had another frosty message for scientists last week during his annual tour of Canada’s North. Peppered throughout the usual patriotic rhetoric were some key code words reinforcing his government’s agenda for publicly funded research.
It’s simple, really. Science in the aid of industry is all that matters. Everything else is a burden or a waste of time.
During a speech in Whitehorse, Harper emphasized the importance of applied science, research that improves the lives of northerners or increases economic activity. It was a proviso he tacked on to almost every sentence.
“(We) will continue here at Yukon College and across the country to invest in science and technology that has both societal and commercial value,” he said.
He also made a point of pushing the “new mandate” for the National Research Council, an agency Harper has been tinkering with since 2008, when he put the scientifically challenged Gary Goodyear in charge of the science and technology portfolio.
In 2003’s Economic Action Plan, the NRC was officially set on a new course.
“Today the NRC has a new life and a new vision,” said Harper, “one that is practical and profitable, it’s client focused and demand driven.”
An agency subservient to the aims of big business, in other words.
For anyone who’s still confused, this is exactly what Harper’s war on science is about. It’s not a literal attack on the discipline itself or its precepts, but on the need for science to remain arm’s length from government agenda and policy. To see where the lack of such independence can lead, one need only look at the decimation of the East Coast fishery.
This Orwellian new mandate for the NRC may seem far-fetched, but the transformation is well documented by Chris Turner in his book “The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada.”
In 2012, while newly installed NRC director John MacDougall was busy slashing jobs and centralizing his command, Gary Goodyear was making the government’s intentions clear.
Describing the NRC as a “concierge” for business, Goodyear told the CBC he envisioned it as “a one-stop, 1-800 ‘I have a solution for your business problem.’”
There is nothing wrong with industry-driven research, of course. But that field is not under threat. As long as businesses need innovation, they will pursue it through the usual channels, such as funding innovation centres at universities.
But governments should take a broader view. They should be looking out for more subtle forms of research, in which the economic impact may not be so blatantly apparent. Science should exist as a service to all facets of society, including environmental protection.
To look at science as a mere economic tool is to carve out only one small facet of it and ignore the need for comprehensive knowledge. The world is more complex than just oil and jobs.
Having seen the drastic changes in government science and talked to those affected, Chris Turner doesn’t mince words.
“Perhaps no Harper agenda initiative so fully reveals the government’s willingness to act in the total absence of evidence or best practices as the retooling of the NRC does.”