On Campus

Influential British journal blasts Harper on science

Argues council to replace national science and technology adviser won’t be as independent

A feisty debate over the direction of research in Canada was sparked yesterday by an editorial in the respected U.K. science journal Nature that criticized Stephen Harper’s government.

Although the journal acknowledged that science has “long faced an uphill battle for recognition in Canada,” it argued “the slope became steeper when the Conservative government was elected in 2006.”  The article — entitled “Science in Retreat” — went on to detail specific criticisms of Harper’s government, including last month’s departure of independent science advisor Arthur Carty.

Carty “offered” his resignation after the government created the 18-member Science, Technology and Innovation Council, which would presumably replace Carty’s role advising the government on the science and technology research file. Nature blasted this move, arguing that the new council would certainly be less independent because a number of government administrators hold seats.

But the editorial also implied that Carty’s office was destined for failure from the beginning, as Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells noted here. The independent, non-partisan advisory office set up in 2004 by Martin’s Liberals had an “abysmal” budget and “the mandate was vague at best,” according to Nature.

Despite the Liberals’ part in the fate of a national science advisor, Nature argued things got blatantly worse when Harper took office, starting by relocating Carty’s offices from the PMO to Industry Canada, a move that is surely telling of Harper’s direction on research. Nature also cited other evidence of Harper’s “manifest disregard of science,” including the government’s failure to make a showing at a ceremony that honored Canadian scientists that contributed to the Nobel Prize-winning international climate change report.  Also: “In January, it muzzled Environment Canada’s scientists, ordering them to route all media enquires through Ottawa to control the agency’s media message.”

Jim Prentice, Minister of Industry, issued a rebuttal Thursday: “How anyone can state that 18 bright minds cannot perform the task of one science advisor — who decided to retire after years of dedicated public service — is incomprehensible.” Prentice also defended his government’s position on climate change, saying that climate change is “one of the greatest threats facing the world today.”

But the National Post reported that many in the research community agree with the Nature editorial. “It ‘has expressed what many of us feel,’ says geologist Andrew Miall, of the University of Toronto, and president of the Royal Society of Canada’s Academy of Science,” and “Celebrated Arctic biology John Smol, at Queen’s University, says there are worrying shortfalls in Canadian research support.”

However, our columnist Wells wrote that the evidence is not entirely clear. “If Canada’s leading scientists and university administrators agree with the Nature editorial, they are not saying so. When the Senate science committee held hearings last month on the Harper government’s research strategy, which it announced last May, a chorus of leading research administrators lined up around the block to say it was a swell strategy. They suggested minor tweaks at most. And it’s not as though the Tories had stacked the witness list: it was the Senate. The Tories weren’t in charge. Art Eggleton chaired the meeting. The witness list was composed of the usual suspects, AUCC, CFI, CIHR (emphasis his).”

Read the rest of Paul Wells’ analysis here.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.