Public Science

What Happened

The Harper government waged a systematic assault on public science. It took various forms:

  • Eliminating the mandatory long-form census
  • Completely or partially de-funding or outright shutting down whole research organizations or research programs
  • Muzzling of scientists
  • Stacking research organizations with appointees who then change the research agenda
  • Significant weakening of federal libraries and archives

The assault included the natural and social sciences. It was not restricted to government scientists, but ran the full gamut of organizations connected to scientific research: government departments, at arms-length government funded organizations, organizations that funded other research, universities, NGOs and individual researchers who obtained grants through one of the funding agencies, and even included a UN convention conducting research relevant to climate change.


Eliminating the mandatory long-form census

The elimination of the long-form mandatory census in 2010 is in a category of its own. The census was the way in which Canada knew itself, and hopefully will again. Abolishing the mandatory census and replacing it with a voluntary household survey cost more money and resulted in such poor data that experts declared it as useless. The loss of information was terrible. Responses in 1,813 communities were so low, they had to be dropped from the data. Some Aboriginal communities were entirely missing. Overall, the response rate dropped from 93.5% for the mandatory census to 68.6% for the voluntary one. The very rich and the poor and marginalized, including Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, recent immigrants, people with low levels of education or with difficulties expressing themselves in one of the official languages are the ones who tend not to participate in voluntary surveys.

One of the most important, if rarely commented upon, functions of the mandatory census is to provide the base data for correcting sampling errors in other surveys. The absence of good census data thus affects every other survey conducted afterwards. The voluntary survey was so unreliable that Statistics Canada used the 2006 census to adjust the results of 2011 survey.

Two days after having been sworn in the liberal government reinstated the long-form mandatory census.

De-funding or outright shutting down entire research organizations

The attack on research organizations was three-pronged: in the federal government’s cross hairs were research organizations dealing with climate change or environmental protection; research dealing with human rights in general or with a focus on specific disadvantaged groups such as Indigenous people or women; and research focusing on international development.

Research organizations dealing with environmental protection/climate change that were shut down included the Canadian Association for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences which was Canada’s main funding body for research on climate, the atmosphere and the oceans. When its budget was not renewed, it closed its doors in 2011. With its closure, a large number of projects were negatively affected or disbanded, including the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, which saw its budget drop by a third, seriously hindering its important work.

Major cuts were applied to Environment Canada and the Department of Oceans and Fisheries, with devastating losses of knowledge to crucial monitoring programs, including the World Ozone and Ultraviolet Radiation Data Centre, the smokestack team that  played a key role in providing technical support and guidance for the enforcement of standards and regulations for industrial emissions and the Ocean Contaminants Program and the Experimental Lakes Area project.

The National Roundtable on Environment and the Economy, which was created by Brian Mulroney when he was prime minister, was not only shut down, but the government prevented its former head from posting a farewell message, and even more importantly, prohibited the transfer of its website to a think-tank based at the University of Ottawa. Sustainable Prosperity had offered to maintain the website for free, but was prohibited from doing so.

Many organizations that worked on social science research, including realms such as the legal system, human rights and public policy also saw their funding cut.

The Law Commission of Canada (LCC) did important legal policy and social sciences research to provide the government of the day with an objective assessment of priorities for the legislative agenda. In 2006, though, the LCC had its budget eliminated, leading to its shutting down. The Commission had championed Aboriginal rights, extending rights beyond conjugal relationships, removing restrictions on same-sex marriages, and dealing with child abuse. The Court Challenges Program was eliminated at the same time. Other organizations that had to close because of lack of funding included the Canadian Policy Research Network and the National Council of Welfare.

The Department of Justice was hit by large cuts, which shifted it from its traditional role of “speaking truth to power.” Status of Women Canada had to remove the word “equality” from its mandate, as well as the words “equity,” “advocacy” and “access to justice,” and had to eliminate its $1 million Independent Research Fund. As is always the case when funding programs are cut, they have ripple effects on organizations that used to be funded by the program. One of the many consequences of this particular cut was that the National Association of Women and Law was forced to close its doors due to lack of funding.

A number of Indigenous research organizations conducting social science research were shut down: the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Aboriginal Health Organization, which produced, among other things, the innovative peer reviewed Journal of Aboriginal Health and Sisters in Spirit, which kept track of and researched cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The federal government is currently in the process of starting an inquiry into the matter of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The third prong of the attack against public science was directed against international development. The Canadian International Development Agency was folded into Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, and many organizations were de-funded, including KAIROS, Match International, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation and Alternatives, an international solidarity organization focusing on justice and equity in Quebec, Canada and around the world. Canada was also the only country in the world to withdraw from the  United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification just as they were poised to carry out the first ever comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of desertification, land degradation and drought.

The number of organizations mentioned in this section is by no stretch of the imagination comprehensive. It merely provides examples of a deliberate and systematic attack on public science through de-funding or closing research-oriented organizations.

Muzzling of scientists

Muzzling of scientists took various forms. One form of restricting the flow of scientific information is simply to fire scientists. This happened on a large scale. One estimate is that about 5,000 jobs in ten science-based departments were lost. Beyond that, scientists were outright prohibited from communicating directly with the media or the public, and their communication with other scientists was severely restricted, by making it difficult or impossible to attend scientific conferences and even with respect to publishing articles in scientific journals.

As in the previous section, what follows are just examples of these measures, rather than a full list.

At Environment Canada, all media requests required consultation with the Minister’s office. A media relations officer provided the Minister’s office with a proposed response and recommended whether an interview would be granted or a written response provided. Media requests on policy questions, “especially those related to climate change, wildlife, water quality and supply” and those “on the process or proposed process to protect species such as the polar bear and the caribou,” as well as calls from Parliamentary Press Gallery affiliated reporters and major news outlets required approval from the Privy Council Office. As a consequence, media coverage regarding climate change dropped by over 80% between 2007, when the media policy was implemented, and 2010, according to an Environment Canada report.

The communications chill was not restricted to Environment Canada. In 2013, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada conducted a survey  of its members, summarized in their report, The Big Chill. They found that 90% of federal scientists did not feel that they could speak freely to the media about their work (p. 2).

Even more problematic was the fact that scientific integrity was no longer guaranteed. A shocking 50% of federal scientists were aware of situations in which political interference had compromised health, safety or environmental sustainability (p. 6). The survey data revealed that 59% of Environment Canada scientists were aware of cases in which information was suppressed or not released and that this had led to inaccurate, incomplete or misleading public impressions (p. 10). 

To give just one specific example of this, a team of researchers led by Environment Canada scientist Jane Kirk presented a study at the 2011 North American Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry conference in Boston. The researchers concluded that toxic contaminants were found in snow within 50 kilometres of oil sands operations in Northern Alberta. Guidelines for the protection of aquatic life were exceeded for seven priority pollutants (PPE). The documents show that researchers were discouraged from talking to the media, were provided with scripted answers and were directed to refer requests to media relations. The research is part of the Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring.

Concerning this particular research, the internal Environment Canada document states that the studies confirm earlier findings of oil sands-related contamination by University of Alberta scientists. However, the scripted answers emphasized that no link between contaminants and fish health was established by the study and that the substances found are “typical of development, not just oil sands development …they will be found to some extent even in snow in cities with no heavy industry.” The script also suggests that scientists answer several questions, including one regarding Environment Canada’s “lax environmental protection stance” by stating, “I am a scientist. I’m not in a position to answer that question but I’d be happy to refer you to an appropriate spokesperson.”

Citing this research, a recent independent study by scientists at the University of Toronto concluded that official reporting of oil sands pollution has in fact underestimated emissions and the associated environmental and health risks for humans and wildlife.

To give an example from another Department, Michael Rennie, a former Fisheries and Oceans Canada employee, revealed that “never in four years did [he] receive communications approval to speak with media by deadline.”

Furthermore, scientists required departmental approval to submit research to science journals, and the department had the power to pull scientific articles that had already been accepted for publication. 

In November 2015, the new Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, announced that, “Our government values science and will treat scientists with respect … that is why government scientists and experts will be able to speak freely about their work to the media and the public.”

Stacking research organizations with appointees that change the research agenda

Two examples will have to suffice here, the first because of its egregious nature, the second because of its importance.

Rights and Democracy had since 1988 been monitoring human rights and facilitating democratic transitions around the world. In 2009, the Conservative government appointed new members to the organization’s board. The resulting discord led to an extremely contentious board meeting; that night, following the meeting, then-president Remy Beauregard had a heart attack and died.

Nearly all of the agency’s staff publicly stated their non-confidence in the Harper-appointed board members. A Deloitte and Touche audit conducted into the agency’s operations concluded that the Harper government had engaged in an “ideological hijacking” of the agency. In 2012, the government shut the organization down.

The most important funders for university-based research in Canada are the three federal granting councils: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

During the Harper regime, the funding for the three granting councils declined significantly. In constant 2010 dollars, SSHRC lost 10.1%, NSRC 6.4% and CIHR 7.5% of their funding. The Canadian Association of University Teachers reported that the governing structure of the councils went from being dominated by academic faculty to being dominated by administrators and corporate members, with funding increasingly tied to cooperation with industry.

Significant weakening of federal libraries and archives

Scientific research, regardless of topic, is always grounded in research that has been conducted before. For this, access to prior research is needed. Libraries and archives are the repositories for this type of information. To be useful, they need to both have appropriate documents and provide access to their holdings. Under the Harper government, both aspects were under fire: holdings were diminished and access was restricted.

Library and Archives Canada suffered severe budget cuts and many federal libraries and archives were closed. As Phyllis Creighton explained in a lecture for Our Right to Know:

… libraries in at least a dozen federal government departments were being closed, or staffs and services greatly reduced—Agriculture Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Environment Canada, the National Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment, Health Canada, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Industry Canada, Transport Canada, the National Capital Commission, National Defence, Natural Resources Canada, Parks Canada, the Public Service Commission of Canada, and Public Works and Government Services Canada. These libraries contained highly specialized information relating to their department’s mandate, often not available elsewhere, with information sources identified and credibility and relevance assessed, and gave access to sources in multiple formats. In other words they provided accurate, authoritative information for public service employees who were engaged in scientific research, giving government knowledge based policy advice and Canadians programs. Institutional memory has been eroded.

In the process, many books and documents were simply dumped, given away to anyone who wanted them, or otherwise disposed of. One library which suffered such fate was the Eric Marshall Library belonging to the Freshwater Institute at the University of Manitoba.

"It was a world class library with some of the finest environmental science and freshwater book collections in the world. It was certainly the best in Canada, but it's no more," said Burt Ayles, a 68-year-old retired research scientist and former regional director general for freshwaters in central Canada and the Arctic. "The loss of this library and its impact on fisheries and environmental science is equivalent to Rome destroying the Royal Library of Alexandria in Egypt. It's equal to that," said Ayles. At the time, Alexandria boasted the world's largest collection in the ancient world.

Some materials have been consolidated in other libraries. With more concentration of materials in fewer physical locations, interlibrary loans therefore become increasingly important. However, the Inter-Library Loans Program was also cut. Likewise, the Community Access Program, which provided free public access to computers and high-speed Internet at libraries across Canada was eliminated. This program had in particular served rural and remote communities, as well as Canada’s poorer and more vulnerable citizens.

Role or Position

Modern societies are dependent on the sciences to provide the background information on which policies can be constructed that are based on evidence. Failing such knowledge, policies are based on ideology, or on the preferences of whoever has the power to determine what should be done. During the Harper government, much public science was destroyed. 

Implications and Consequences

Knowledge: Some of the loss of knowledge is irreversible. Libraries and archives have been destroyed. They cannot be recreated, since the materials were lost. There will be a permanent gap in our knowledge about the social structure of Canada due to the abolition of the mandatory long-form census.

Democracy: An active democracy requires knowledge of problems that exist – both for the government, as well as for the opposition and for civil society groups. The abolition of the mandatory long-form census, and of many other Statistics Canada surveys, significantly restricted the available knowledge for devising policies appropriate to the problems at issue. The discontinuation of environmental reviews meant that projects were approved that perhaps should not have been approved. Completely undemocratic was the interference in scientific writing and forcing scientists to make untrue statements.

Prestige of Canada as a Country: Canada suffered a great decline in its international prestige. Editorials from respected scientific journals such as Nature and The Economist deplored the attack on public science. Hundreds of international scientists did the same in an open letter. A lot of knowledge that was of international importance was destroyed.

Image: Richard Webster

Published: 24 February 2016