Chris Turner, author of The War on Science, has a new op-ed posted in The Toronto Star titled “Stephen Harper’s war on experts”. Turner knows his stuff – his 2013 book is excellent – and the new op-ed doesn’t disappoint. He covers the myriad ways in which the Harper government has acted to diminish input from experts, with particular focus on the cancellation of the long-form census and the 2012 omnibus budget bill.
I’m fully with Turner until the very end, when he says
“As a result of this multivalent war on expertise, the Canadian government now toils under a diminished and demoralized civil service and a well-earned reputation at home and abroad for being wholly contemptuous of real action on climate change. On the plus side, a substantial amount of the damage can be easily repaired by a new government ready to once again take experts seriously and properly support their work.”
(emphasis mine). This seems unlikely to me for two reasons.
First, the damage is more extensive than I think Turner acknowledges. After nearly a decade of cuts, library closures and muzzling, the federal capacity for science is severely weakened. Many experts in their fields have been fired, and many others have given up and retired. These people are not coming back. It takes decades to develop a scientist’s abilities, and the cycle of senior scientists training the junior ones has been badly broken. The loss of expertise at Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the National Research Council (amongst others) will not be so easily replaced.
Second, it is not at all clear that a future government will make repairing the damage done a priority – even if they do take experts seriously. New governments aren’t usually in the business of overturning everything the previous bunch did. We are going to need to challenge any new government to live up to the ideals it espoused while in opposition. Rebuilding our institutions is going to require forethought and a concerted effort. Getting rid of the Harper government is a necessary but not sufficient condition for this rebuilding to take place.
People confronted by analyses like Turner’s often wonder what they can do to help. In this protracted federal election far more citizens will be given the opportunity to ask the candidates knocking on their doors where they stand on the issue of evidence-based policy making. Get a commitment – and if necessary hold their feet to the fire when they are elected.