The Harper Government's War on Science

Many scientific programs terminated, many scientists fired
June 1, 2013

 Canada’s Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, is investigating the muzzling of federal scientists, but far more troubling is the actual elimination of scientific programs and the firing of scientists. On that front, Canada’s federal environmental and oceans science and scientists have taken a terrible beating in the Harper government’s War on Science. 

As fresh-water scientist David Schindler, professor at the University of Alberta, told Maclean’s (May 3, 2013), the Harper government is “all for science that will produce widgets that they can sell and tax, but it’s clear that environmental scientists are lumped right down there with Greenpeace in their view.”

According to information provided to me in March by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) – the union which represents federal scientists and other professionals employed by federal government departments – 5,332 of their members have already either been fired from their jobs or transferred to other duties. That number includes 139 scientists/professionals at Environment Canada (cut by $253.8 million since 2011) and 436 scientists/professionals at Fisheries & Oceans (already cut by $79.3 million, with $100 million more in cuts slated to come). Thousands of unionized support staff have also been cut from these and other departments.

Since the passage of omnibus budget Bill C-38 a year ago, dozens of federally-funded scientific programs important to the health of Canada’s environment and oceans have been dismantled or slashed to the bone (see box at the end).

The federal government claims that its drastic cuts to most federal agencies are necessary in order to eliminate the deficit before the next federal election. But, as Toronto Star business writer Dave Olive recently observed, “Harper’s ultra-low corporate tax [15%] deprives Ottawa of $13.7 billion a year, according to Finance’s own estimates. That’s enough to wipe out the deficit in two years without cutting a single program.”

Each one of the discontinued or slashed programs deserves an article of its own to explain its importance to Canadians.  For example, the May 2013 CCPA Monitor contained an article about the cuts to the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), resulting in the killing of the Community Pasture Program – more than a million acres of prairie grasslands that help stop soil erosion, provide habitat for endangered species, sequester carbon, and enable sustainable grazing.

Another discontinued PFRA scientific program is the federal tree farm at Indian Head, which for 80 years had been growing millions of trees for prairie farmers to use as wind-breaks to keep topsoil from blowing away. The Indian Head site also led the world in agro-forestry science and research.

According to MP Ralph Goodale’s blog (April 20, 2013), “Over 10,000 people have petitioned the government to change its very dumb decision to kill the [tree] farm.”

The federal government has also severely cut Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency. This is the agency that regulates things like the neonicotinoid pesticides now found to contribute to massive die-offs of bees and other pollinators across much of the world. The European Union recently announced a two-year ban on neonicotinoids.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has especially been hit hard by the Harper government’s War on Science, with more cuts coming.  DFO’s Habitat Management Program, which monitored the effects of harmful industrial, agricultural, and land-development activities on wild fish, is gone. DFO’s teams of experts on ocean contaminants in marine mammals, on marine oil pollution, and on oil spill countermeasures have all been disbanded. Gone also is the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas, and Energy Research – the only agency with the ability to adequately assess offshore drilling projects. Nine out of 11 Marine Science Libraries will be shut. 

At this writing, the Experimental Lakes Area (which lost federal funding as of March 31, 2013) will possibly continue to operate under funding from the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development, and the Ontario and Manitoba governments.

At Environment Canada, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory in Nunavut - involved in monitoring the Arctic ozone hole discovered in 2011 - has been closed.  Similarly, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences – Canada’s main research foundation on climate change – has been discontinued. The Canadian Centre for Inland Waters – the most important science monitoring agency for the imperilled Great Lakes – has been shorn of key staff members. 

The federal government's War on Science has also eliminated the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission, important for overseeing fracking companies. And. by dismantling the Smokestacks Emissions Monitoring Team at Environment Canada, the federal government has eliminated “the only Canadian group capable of writing and supervising credible testing methods for new and existing rules to impose limits on pollution from smokestacks” (PostMedia News, March 18, 2013).

The Harper government claims it will enhance oil and gas pipeline safety for controversial projects like Northern Gateway, Kinder Morgan, and Enbridge’s Line 9 reversal, but the federal government has in fact cut Transport Canada (which oversees pipeline and tanker safety) by some $62 million, affecting 45 PIPSC scientists/professionals’ jobs.

Even the National Research Council’s world-renowned Canada Institute for Scientific & Technical Information (CISTI) has been cut. These are the people who tackle issues such as responding to pandemics, and maintaining food and product safety. On May 7, the Harper government announced that the National Research Council will henceforth be catering to industry’s need for applied science that has commercial prospects, allowing industry to set the research agenda.

Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, has consistently defended the Harper government from accusations of a War on Science by emphasizing the $5.5 billion that the Feds have provided to the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

The CFI – the key decision-maker for all science funding in Canada – has a governing body of 13 members, seven of whom are appointed by the Minister of Industry, Christian Paradis. These seven then select the other six members.

This CFI governing body makes decisions about what science projects will be funded across Canada, including those at universities. According to the CFI website, the members are “similar to a company’s shareholders, but representing the Canadian public.” However, a look at the 13 Canada Foundation for Innovation members and their corporate ties (available at indicates that it is a highly politicized body  - including a founding trustee of the Fraser Institute - that is making the decisions about what science to support with its $5.5 billion in taxpayer dollars.

CFI Members Co-Chair David Fung is a prime-mover in China-Canada business circles. He is the Chair of the China Committee at International Science and Technology Partnership Canada; Vice-chair of the Canada China Business Council; Member of the Strategy for Partnership and Innovation Committee of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC); Investment Champion for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade; Strategic Advisor of Cycle Capital Management Inc.; Chair and CEO of ACDEG Group; and Director of CentrePort Canada Inc.

As I noted in the March 2013 CCPA Monitor, China has invested some $40 billion in Canada’s energy sector and is ultimately interested in Canada’s freshwater, having ruined much of its own water through decades of unregulated industrial pollution.  

CFI Members Co-Chair Roland Hosein is a vice-president at General Electric Canada and Member of the Expert Panel on Innovation at NSERC. General Electric is thoroughly engaged in promoting energy-export corridors and water-privatization efforts across Canada, including GENI (see Feb. 2012 CCPA Monitor) and (with Goldman Sachs) the Aqueduct Alliance (see May 2012 CCPA Monitor).

The CFI Board of Directors (seven of whom are appointed by the CFI Members) includes the President/CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute (a perennial advocate of bulk water export), and an executive of Husky Energy (whose Hong Kong billionaire majority owner Li Ka-Shing is buying up water/utilities around the globe).

Both CFI Co-Chairs David Fung and Roland Hosein are involved in NSERC, the supposedly arms-length federal body that provides more than $1 billion annually in research funding to universities, community colleges and businesses. James Turk of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) told the Huffington Post (May 7, 2013) that, “Of the money going to NSERC, 80% of it is not going to universities; it’s going to community colleges so that they can partner with companies to solve company-specific problems.” 

Turk says that situation has endangered several university-connected research facilities: the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island, the Biogeoscience Institute (which studies the Rockies area ecosystem), the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility (which conducts deep ocean science research), Neptune Canada (an ocean-floor observatory), the Microfungal Collection and Herbarium (studying white-nose syndrome in bats), the Aquatron Lab (Canada’s largest aquatic life research facility), the Coriolis II (oceanographic research), and the Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuarapik Research Station (studying melting permafrost and northern ecosystems).

As Council of Canadians chair Maude Barlow and freshwater scientist David Schindler wrote in The Star Phoenix (March 15, 2013), “The Harper government is systematically dismantling almost every law, regulation, program, or research facility aimed at protecting freshwater in Canada and around the world.”  The federal government even killed the Global Environmental Monitoring System, an inexpensive project that monitored 3,000 freshwater sites around the world for a UN database.

So the Harper government's War on Science has some obvious goals, including getting rid of all federally-funded science that would impede water export. Having already wiped out federal protection for most of Canada’s lakes and rivers, the federal government is now eliminating the federal science/scientists that might stand in the way of water export, as well as his other priorities like aquaculture, tar sands and offshore oil development, and liquefied natural gas export. 

Of course, the bean-counters in the Finance Department would say that all this cutting of science is simply a necessary part of these times of austerity and, like other governments around the world, we need to drastically cut government spending. As David Olive observed about this “austerity chic” (Toronto Star, April 26, 2013), “It’s like watching a grainy newsreel of Herbert Hoover’s lectures on the paramount virtue of balanced budgets, while banks, farms, and barber shops go bust and the jobless rate soars above 30%.”  

However, Olive wrote, “The ranks of austerity advocates in the U.S. and Europe are thinning notably after it was recently revealed that a seminal pro-austerity essay by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that became the global playbook for the austerity crowd is, by design or accident, an intellectual fraud.”

On April 13, graduate student Thomas Herndon and two of his professors (Robert Polin and Michael Ash) at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst revealed that the famous 2010 Reinhart and Rogoff (R&R) pro-austerity study was riddled with “coding errors, selective exclusion of available data, and unconventional weighting of summary statistics” that lead to “serious misrepresentations of the relationship between public debt and GDP growth.” The PERI economists concluded that the erroneous R&R study presents “a false image that high public debt ratios inevitably entail sharp declines in GDP growth.”

For the past three years, the R&R study had been used around the world to justify harmful cuts to government spending and drastic debt reduction measures, including water-privatization and the sell-off of national assets. The R&R study was often cited by academics, politicians, and the mainstream media (including in Canada) as the reason to forgo stimulus spending and adopt severe austerity measures.

On April 18, the Center for Media and Democracy revealed that both Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff are deeply connected to Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson (formerly with the Blackstone Group), who has been funding think-tanks that preach the austerity “fix the debt” gospel.    

Reinhart was a Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (founded, chaired, and funded by Pete Peterson), and Kenneth Rogoff is on the Advisory Board of the Peterson Institute, which bankrolled and published a 2011 book-length collaboration by Reinhart and Rogoff apparently based on the same fraudulent data.

Other countries are now rethinking their austerity measures in light of the news about the fraudulent R&R study. Harper himself has a Master’s degree in economics, so you’d think he might want to reconsider his austerity measures in light of the actual economic facts. 

But, as Les Leopold, director of the Labor Institute in the U.S., wrote in the Huffington Post (April 18, 2013), the “debt hysteria crew... don’t give a damn about facts or even about the debt. Their real goal is the destruction of government programs that serve the collective good.”

Canada's environmental and oceans scientists and scientific programs have served the collective good for decades. Now, many of them have been eliminated or drastically cut, for no good economic reason whatsoever.

(Joyce Nelson is an award-winning freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.)