Science in Canada: open for business

Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear announced this week that the National Research Council is now "open for business," and will dedicate itself strictly to projects that are "directed by and for" industry.

Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear announced this week that the National Research Council is now “open for business,” and will dedicate itself strictly to projects that are “directed by and for” industry. Over the next two years, the government will spend $121 million to convert the NRC to a more business-friendly model. Oddly, scientists have not rushed to embrace this opportunity to at last make something useful out of their lives.

University of Toronto professor John Polanyi, who won the 1986 Nobel prize for chemistry, warns that made-to-order science could do industry more harm than good. “It would be a mistake to think that industry sees ahead to the basic innovations that are going to benefit it,” says Polanyi. “It sees some. But scientists who are in touch with the development of scientific knowledge will see more.”

John Smol, a Queen’s University professor and a Canada research chair in environmental change, considers the new direction “a complete disconnect with how science is done.” But then, Smol himself is part of the problem. As one of the authors of a recent study which concludes that the tar sands are polluting waters up to 90 kilometres away with deadly toxins, he has clearly demonstrated an inability to supply industry with the kind of science it requires.

But while some will complain that turning the NRC into an arm of corporate Canada is a mistake, there will always be those who believe the move doesn’t go far enough. Consider how many branches of government are still pushing science that’s bad for business. For example, despite an admonition from Yukon MP Ryan Leef, Environment Canada has not backed down on its classification of the polar bear as a “species of special concern.”

The observation that polar bear numbers are in general decline as a result of global warming is useless to industry. There is no profit in this knowledge. It can’t be marketed. Besides, science suggesting that climate change not only exists but is doing measurable damage that can only harm Canada’s ability to sell dirty oil to the U.S., where they’re just waking up to another summer of drought and wildfire.

Leef entered the polar bear debate when his constituent Heather Cobban, a teacher from Watson Lake, wrote to ask him to do more to protect the Arctic icon’s dwindling population. Leef responded by quoting a 2008 report by a group of American climate change deniers to the effect that scientific studies on the bears, such as those conducted by Environment Canada, “should be considered unscientific and inconsequential to decision makers,” and that in fact “the global polar bear population has quadrupled over the last 40 years.”

The report’s authors were uniquely qualified to study polar bear populations from the point of view of a productive economy: two are marketing professors, and the third, Willie Soon, is a professional climate-change denier who has been paid at least $1 million by Exxon, the American Petroleum Institute and Koch Industries to spread the good news that climate change is caused by solar variation, and not by fossil fuels.

Soon is the kind of scientist the Conservative government needs, one who understands the requirements of industry. His work has been thoroughly debunked by what Leef calls “pessimistic studies,” done by scientists who don’t always put industry first. However discredited, the Soon studies remain useful as sound bites for industry spokespeople and right-wing politicians. By simply ignoring, or as in Leef’s case claiming ignorance of, the pessimists’ work, they can continue to recycle optimistic, industry-friendly science for years after it’s been skewered by the facts.

Last month, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told La Presse that “people aren’t as worried as they were before about global warming of two degrees,” and “scientists have recently told us that our fears are exaggerated.” Asked by reporters to name a scientist who had recently told us any such thing, Oliver couldn’t think of one, but his staff later referred reporters to the work of Financial Post columnist Lawrence Solomon. Solomon founded Energy Probe, an environmental think-tank dedicated to saving the planet through privatization.

Environment Canada’s website has this to say about climate change and polar bears: “… previously predicted declines in polar bear populations based on projected increases in global temperatures are not unavoidable. Greenhouse gas mitigation efforts that limit the increase in global mean surface air temperature to less than around 2OC above pre-industrial levels were found to greatly improve the likelihood that sustainable polar bear populations will exist throughout this century”.

Look for this kind of pessimistic view of science to disappear from all government communications in the near future. It does nothing to advance industry, and it contradicts the Conservative Party line on both climate change and polar bears. Who needs it? As Leef told the News, “Looking back on it, to be quite frank, I probably would just not include any (studies or scientists) and stick with my main message, which is that the estimates we currently have are widely accepted …”

Leef might be laying out a formula for his whole party. Put all the scientists on research and development for the resource industry, make up whatever numbers sound favourable, and tell the public they are widely accepted estimates. It’s a recipe for irreparable damage, but it does show that Canada is open for business.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.