Today’s budget day. I think we can be reasonably certain that no matter what comes up on the R&D front, somebody is going to trot out the meme that the Harper government is conducting a “War on Science”. But this is, at best, a half-truth. There is an enormous difference between the Harper government’s record of heeding scientific advice and its behaviour towards government scientists, on the one hand, and its record of funding academic science, on the other.
Their record on the former is indeed pretty terrible, particularly when it comes to protection of lakes, waterways, and groundwater. The charge that they are putting developer interests above environmental interests is, near as I can tell, absolutely true. The decreased ability of government scientists to communicate their results in scholarly forums is ridiculous. But the paranoia around this stuff is getting out of hand – some of the rhetoric around the closure of libraries in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was pretty surreal.
(Apparently, plenty of people found photos of dumpsters full of books as prima facie evidence that jack-booted Tory ministers were personally eviscerating government library collections. But regular book disposal is par for the course at any library. Collections management strategies don’t just mean acquiring books, they mean getting rid of them when they are no longer necessary – in cases where similar collections are being merged, the proportion of volumes meeting that description can be quite high. There is definite evidence of carelessness in the way collections are being disposed of, but anyone who thinks those decisions are made at the Ministerial level doesn’t understand Ottawa.)
Anyways, whatever their record on government science, the Tories’ record of funding academic science is something else entirely. Some of the War-on-Science types like to add up all the tiny little cuts of the past year or two and present them as a sustained, coordinated attack on science. And there’s no doubt that some specific cases – the ones related to water, for instance (e.g. closure of the Experimental Lakes Area) – were probably linked to the government agenda. But as for the rest of them: we’re coming back from a $50 billion deficit, and the government promised not to balance it on the backs of the provinces. Cuts are to be expected, and it doesn’t seem as though Science is taking a disproportionate cut (though, thanks to Tory secretiveness about government operations, we can’t tell for sure). Certainly, there has been nothing on the scale of the 14% cut the granting councils took in Paul Martin’s 1995 budget, and nobody claimed there was a war on science back then.
In case you need a reminder going into today’s budget on the Tory funding record for Science, here it is:
Could the Tories have done more? Sure. But that record simply isn’t one of a government “at war” with Science – which is presumably why people documenting the “War on Science” simply ignore it.
The only thing that worries me is that the numbers get smaller as time goes on. Obviously, that has to do with the fact that the government entered a period of general restraint after 2010. But I wonder: is it also the reaction of a government tired of getting kicked by a community to whom they have been relatively generous? Worth pondering.