Killing Environmental Science

There has been no announcement of the devastating decision to stop studying the natural world, but the evidence is piling up that such a decision has been taken.

It is no secret that Stephen Harper is uninterested in science.  One of his first decisions was to unburden himself of the Science Advisor to the Prime Minister. Dr. Arthur Carty held the position when Harper came to power.  When his term ended, it was not continued, and the position dissolved.

Cuts to climate science have been clear for more than a year.  March 2012 marked the end of all funding, put in place in 2000 under Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. The Harper Conservatives announced last year there was no intention to continue the programme.  $110 million over ten years for autonomous research funding in Canada’s major universities has been spent expanding our understanding of the climate crisis in its multi-faceted disciplines of inquiry. There will be no more federal funding.

Also last year, cuts in Environment Canada seemed directed to anything with the word climate attached.  The entire group of term scientists working on research for adaptation to climate change, calculating the required changes in building codes, for example, to handle the altered climate, were laid off.  The entire Adaptation to Climate Change Research Group was disbanded. So too was the group within Natural Resources Canada maintaining work on Arctic ice cores.  An 80,000 year climate record in ice cores is to be abandoned (the minister said he hoped a university with a big freezer would take them) And the nine glaciologists who did the work are to focus on other issues. 

This year, the cuts are coming thick and fast. Climate is still a target, but so also are water quality and toxicology.

The PEARL facility (the Polar Environmental and Atmospheric Research Laboratory) on Ellesemere Island is to close.  Recent investments of $10 million on state of the art equipment is to be wasted.  At 80 degrees north latitude, PEARL was the closest lab on the planet to the North Pole.  Running costs are only $1.5 million annually, but, despite having $8 million to enhance Canada Revenue Agency’s ability to audit environmental groups, there is no money to maintain critical research.  The world’s scientific community is stunned.  The loss of measurements from PEARL increase the risk that we are flying blind into climate change.

Then came the announcement that the Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora, Ontario is to close.  This facility is unique in the world.  Fifty-eight fresh water lakes 250 kilometres east of Winnipeg have been the testing ground for freshwater science research since the late 1960s.  Ground-breaking work on acid rain, the link between phosphates in detergents and eutrophication, the connection between higher UV levels and penetration at depths, with the additional factor of climate change – all of these findings were made possible because the Government of Canada maintained this real world laboratory of fresh water wilderness lakes.  Just a few years ago, when Stephen Harper was already Prime Minister, $3 million in new investments were made to upgrade the labs. The running cost per year? $600,000. In the House last Friday, the Parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Fisheries announced that it will be sold to private interests.

Next up, cuts at NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) mean that the Yukon Research Lab at Yukon College in Whitehorse is also to close.  The $2.7 million facility only opened last fall – October 2011. But the Harper 2012 budget calls for NSERC to re-focus on research that is “business-led and industry-relevant.”  So much for studying the Yukon’s changing environment.

Then there are the personnel cuts.  The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is ending its national contaminants programme. Nearly all of the DFO scientists studying marine toxicology across Canada are being laid off – 75 scientists. That includes nine marine biologists specializing in marine toxicology in the Institute for Ocean Sciences on the West Saanich Road. According to Dr. Peter Ross, recently dismissed from IOS, “The entire pollution file for the government of Canada, and marine environment in Canada’s three oceans, will be overseen by five junior biologists scattered across Canada – one of which will be in BC.”  (quoted in Times Colonist, “Ottawa sinks pollution checks,” May 20, 2012)

We do not know where the axe will fall next. The cuts are secretive and un-announced.  We learn of them one blow at a time. At the same time as we cut climate science, we are driving up greenhouse gas emissions.  As we shut down research into the effects of toxic chemicals in Arctic marine mammals, the federal government has opened up a huge area of the Beaufort Sea for leases for oil drilling.

What is clear is that the cuts are not about fighting the deficit. If you have to lay off a certain amount of staff in deficit cutting, the priority is to keep key programmes functional – to maintain operations with less.  Setting out to render ourselves deaf, dumb and blind to the impact our resource-mad mania, called the Harper economic strategy, will visit on the natural world, and our own future, is so short-sighted that language is inadequate. Words fail.

Please help spread awareness of this anti-science agenda.  Write friends and family across Canada.  Demand the cuts be reversed.