Carrying on from the interviews I’ve posted over the last few days with Dalhousie atmospheric scientist Thomas Duck and University of Regina biologist Britt Hall, here’s the last of the interviews I did with scientists on the subject of the Harper Government’s war on science. It was with renowned climate scientist Andrew Weaver. He holds the the Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria. And he was an author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report and is one of the authors working on the IPCC’s upcoming fifth report. He is also the author of the book, Keeping Our Cool: Canada in a Warming World.
prairie dog: We’re doing a piece on the possible closure of the Experimental Lakes Area. But we also want to take a look, more broadly, at the Harper Government’s war on science….
Andrew Weaver: It is exactly what is going on.
It’s almost [like the government is saying], “We have a decision of what we’re going to do, and so if you don’t like it and your information is not supportive of the direction we’re taking, we’ll just shut it down.”
So climate information, environmental regulation, toxicity information, this is the kind of information that’s kind of an important facet of what government does in terms of science that is required to formulate good policy. Science is there to inform the policy. But the problem is if you’re making policy in the absence of information then who knows what the ramifications of it are? It’s very short sighted.
Within the federal government there’s a lack of understanding of what science is. There’s some kind of thinking that science is somehow technology. That science is about discovering widgets. That’s not science. That’s completely different.
What they don’t understand too, there’s certain aspects of science that have to be done in the government. You cannot ask industry to self regulate by connecting measurements to determine whether regulations should be imposed on them. Can you imagine? Your job as an industry is to monitor your outflow so you can actually put regulations on your own business? There’s conflicts of interest there. You require a third party analysis. You have to put in stable monitoring programs. The type of stuff that universities can’t do, the type of stuff that industry can’t do. There’s a role for government here. So what they’re doing is arbitrarily shutting down this and shutting down that instead of thinking strategically about what the role of science is in Canadian society.
pd: Why can’t universities do this kind of research?
AW: University research is driven by training. The mandate of the university system is ultimately training. So when you do research in a university what you’re doing is you’re typically doing it — true, there’s lots of innovation and creativity going on — but typically you have post doctoral fellows and graduate students working with you and part of the process is training them so that they can go on into industry or wherever they go and be independent researchers and understand how to set up a problem and solve it better.
And also the funding mechanism are typically on four or five year time frames at most. You will never be able to get funding to run a 20 year program as a faculty member in a university. It would make no sense because if you picked up and went then there goes the program. Whereas governments are designed specifically, and government science is specifically mandate-driven with long term interest, public interest at stake as opposed to the interest of the individual researcher or group of researchers doing it.
pd: How much damage has been wrought by the Harper Government in the last few years?
AW: It’s a bit of a “last one turn out the lights” situation happening in government science.
There’s some people who’re losing their jobs. And there are some people who are getting out while the going is good. And it’s really not a good situation for Canadian society because it creates a stratification whereby you have those who are willy-nilly making decisions and who cares what the ramifications of those decisions are, there’s no monitoring in place. This is true whether it’s Statistics Canada, whether it’s in federal science, whether it’s the National Round Table on the Environment [and the Economy], there’s all sorts of these kinds of independent organizations or government organizations that are there to provide information on which to develop policy and the government decides they don’t need information, they know what the policy is. And frankly what should be happening here is we should have a dozen or two dozen Conservative backbenchers stepping forward and saying, “You know, this is Canadian society that’s at stake here and we didn’t get elected to wreck it.”
This is the old Progressive Conservative element that needs to stand up for the rest of Canada and say, enough is enough and we’re going to walk. And if they walk, we could actually put Canada back on track and [fix] science in Canada.
pd: I understand that some of the climate research that Canada does, like the PEARL [Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory] research station—
AW: Well, bye bye PEARL. PEARL’s not there.
pd: This was cutting edge work. This was where we were leading the world.
pd: So, we’ve not only ruined the ability of our scientists to do research but this was comparable to Canada’s space program.
AW: Canada has been international leaders in climate science. We punch way above our weight class in the climate science community. And that has largely arisen because of the wonderful federal support that research, climate science — and not only climate science, but atmospheric science, ocean science — in Canada has received over the years. So we’ve trained people who go all over the world and become experts there.
People understand that priorities change but the problem is that you don’t change them overnight because what happens is it takes decades to build expertise and it can be ruined overnight. And this is what’s happening. The years and years that have gone into developing expertise in a particular field are lost overnight. People move. And when they move, they don’t come back.
I got a letter from a federal scientist — I won’t say who -— but this came from somewhere in Canada. I got a thank you card. And it said, “Just a quick note to say thank you for your efforts to make public the plight of federal government scientists. Restrictions on our ability to address the public are certainly in place and are being enforced. Like you, I suspect that part of the strategy may be to keep the public from knowing that we do anything to earn our salaries so that somewhere down the line they’ll get rid of science in the federal government claiming we don’t do anything anyway.”
I don’t even know who this guy is and he sent me this thank you note. And he’s a federal government scientist. And I think this is telling you what’s going on. And this guy wasn’t in Environment Canada either.
[A quick aside: Weaver discusses this letter in more length in an article he wrote for the Huffington Post.]
pd: So it goes beyond Environment Canada.
AW: Oh yeah. It’s Agriculture Canada, it’s DFO [the Department of Fisheries and Ocean], NRCAN [Natural Resources Canada], the Geological Service of Canada. It’s all areas of science. People are upset.
pd: You’ve covered some of this already, but I wanted to talk about one of the arguments coming out of the Conservative camp is that we’re facing a tight financial situation and we can only afford to fund science that has direct applications and a profitable bottom line.
AW: That shows such a misunderstanding of what science is. When you say you’re going to fund science that’s going to produce something. You’re not funding science. Industry should be funding that science.
They seem to think that science funding should go to build an automobile. But what you need is to fund the scientists who are sitting there competing with each other to try to develop that new something that might actually make the existing automobile obsolete. But what they’d rather do is fund something in partnership with the auto company to come up with something that’s proprietary for the auto company.
This is using public funds to subsidize industrial research. And that’s not okay.
If these guys actually understood what science was, that argument might have some credence to it but their actions demonstrate a woeful misunderstanding of what science is.
You don’t fund— what they like to fund is these super big massive projects. Well, that’s also not big science. You look at these Canada Excellence Chairs, these million dollar chairs that are being funded at universities, or these $100 million CFI grants and it’s all very nice but these are nothing more than ribbon-cutting ceremonies. But this is not how you move science forward.
If you took the money that went into a couple of these mega chairs or mega projects you’d be doing lots of stuff for many years all across the sciences. But they’re not ribbon cutting ceremonies so they don’t do this.
pd: Funding for NSERC [Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada] has also been throttled and, as a university researcher, I’m wondering if you are also facing financial pressure.
AW: I don’t want to sound arrogant but I’m reasonably well funded. And this doesn’t affect people like me so much because I’m 50, I’m in the latter stages of my career as a scientist. I’m well funded. I’m well established. It’s the young people starting out that this is a problem for. It’s people new in the Canadian system. So I say this as a person with ample funding.
But the problem is, of course, that what’s happened with NSERC, is the government has moved towards enforcing research that has more industrial applications. So I do have some grants that have industrial partners because it’s the only way to get funding. And there’s some areas that are conducive to that. For instance, when you’re working in climate it’s kind of okay to work with a hydro company — Hydro Quebec and BC Hydro — who are looking for information to inform them about changing precipitation patterns. But it’s totally not okay for me to accept money to do my climate research from an oil and gas company. So it’s very difficult to force industry and universities to work together. That has to come spontaneously. And it can’t be mandated. It shows another misunderstanding of how science is done. Science can’t be mandated. It has to happen through curiosity, through people coming together to explore questions they come up with.
pd: Any way to fix this apart from getting a bunch of backbenchers to walk?
AW: Only way to fix it is to get 15 backbenchers or so — you need 13 probably — to say, “Enough is enough, you’re not listening to us, our constituents are hopping mad, we need things done differently, and if you don’t do it differently we’re walking and we’re walking to go back to the old PC Party of yesteryear.” Maybe that will make things change. I can’t see it otherwise.
Unless you start having what’s happening in Montreal across Canada.
pd: People seem complacent about this.
AW: I don’t know that that’s true. I don’t think that they’re aware of it. I have yet to meet anybody who is not aghast at it. Really. I just don’t think people are aware of it. I don’t think people are aware of the consequences of it. And I think that we have a fear of retribution even within the media. The media should be all over this. And CBC, well, they’re getting cut. So we look to CTV and we look to Global and I just don’t—
The Science Writers of Canada have gotten together. They recently won an award, [the Press Freedom Award from the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom and Canadian Commission for UNESCO] for the work they’ve been doing to bring forward the muzzling of Canadian scientists. So there is concern. But I don’t think people realize how serious it is.
It’s not a healthy democracy when those people who are informing the public as to the information that is required to make decisions are being shut down and closed. That is not healthy at all.
Many thanks to Scott Mandia and the rest of the gang at the Climate Science Rapid Response Team for helping to set up this interview with Andrew Weaver.