Energy Ink

War on Science? Hardly

Government couldn't “defeat” science in a war even if it were to undertake such a harebrained idea

April 01, 2014

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I keep hearing the peculiar belief that the Canadian government is somehow anti-science. Since science – or more broadly speaking: reason – is the foundation of the modern world, this view is on par with saying the government wants to return us to an earlier, more primitive state. As one journalist goadingly put it: the Prime Minister is bent on undoing the Enlightenment.

Wonderfully provocative, the idea is turning heads at cocktail parties and coursing about the blogosphere. Peel back the tweets and look inside and you’ll discover that this claim of a government-backed war on science comes from the same people who fret over the government’s pro-growth policies, including its promotion of the extractive industries. Pro-growth and pro-industry get simplistically equated, in their eyes, with anti-environment.

You’ll also discover the accusation that the government is conspiratorially de-funding research projects and muzzling scientists in order to hide new and sinister truths about the public harm caused by oil and gas. The July 10, 2012 “Death of Evidence” march on Parliament Hill is cited as an example of how the downtrodden scientific community’s is valiantly fighting back.

Most sober-minded Canadians have probably noticed that the government has not been successful in systematically destroying science and throwing us back into the Dark Ages. Nationwide science, both pure and applied, is alive and well in our educational system, research centers and industry. Government couldn’t “defeat” science in a war even if it ever did undertake such a harebrained idea.

The war on science slur comes from those who don’t see the continued use of oil and gas not only as a one-way street to environmental oblivion. They now also see it leading to an intellectual apocalypse. Government has, they argue, tragically given up on scientific truth as a reliable guide in policy-making. And this abdication of science is setting society adrift in the single-minded pursuit for economic growth.

Actually, the polemicists aren’t really accusing the government of a war on all science. If questioned deeper, they begrudgingly acknowledge that government is using taxpayers’ dollars to promote science with prospective commercial (the horror!) applications.

But maybe that is a good thing? The current government was elected on a platform to create jobs and strengthen the economy, so this should certainly be a key standard by which to judge its performance. Using tax dollars efficiently and strategically toward achieving these central objectives is certainly the government’s legitimate prerogative.

In its decision-making processes, a judicious government considers a multitude of considerations, such as employment, policy alignment, public acceptance, national security, external relations, environmental impact, social equity, economic knock-on effects and so on. Amongst its considerations, the environment is profoundly important, but its importance must be viewed in relation to all the others.

The war on science crowd falls into the trap of think about political matters in absolute terms. They view the environment to be of absolute value, and they think the government views the economy to be of absolute value. Both are false views. To emphasize the role of science in economic value creation is not a war on science. It is also certainly not a war on the environment.

Could it be the science-war polemicists are just waging their own war, one on industry? In this war, as in any, the first casualty ends up being the truth.

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Comments

  • Dak

    This article misrepresents alot of the commentary on the “War on Science”. Yes, there is the cocktail chatter crowd, but why would you focus on them when there are real concerns about whether Industry Canada’s 2007 and 2014 Science Strategy will do anything for industrial innovation in our country? In the early 2000s we ranked in the top ten in almost every innovation index in the OECD countries. These days we are often ranked in the teens and twenties. Journalism that pretends there isn’t a problem here is not helping Canadian industry.

    • jcmincalgary

      correlation is not causation, I can think of many elements that contribute, including the demise of the Ontario economy from the many anti-business policies of the Liberal Government. Government does not innovate and it certainly can’t pick winners or losers. the best thing to help Canadian industry is to get out of the way

      • Dak

        You might be right. However your opinion on this does run counter to how Japan, Korea, the US, the UK and India do it (to name a few that are well surpassing) as well as Industry Canada’s own reports which were written by national and international business leaders. I will agree that the single biggest drop in innovation we had was the collapse of Nortel, which was not this government’s fault. But they need to realize that big jumps in innovation do not happen by “getting out of the way”, they happen through proper nurturing of an innovative environment.