I may have been wrong. When I wrote about Harper and Co. slashing at funding for programs like the National Round Table on Energy and the Environment, attacking green groups, giving Cabinet power to approve infrastructure projects, and changing the rules for energy projects, I thought this was all about the pipelines. I thought it was a matter of clearing a path for the likes of Northern Gateway in order to encourage the development of the oil sands; a goal not all Canadians (myself included) are on board with, but one that he has at least made quite clear.
Maybe that was correct back then. But it’s gone much further than that, and the hits (still) keep coming. At least three major research stations have been severely impacted over the last two months, two over just the past couple of weeks: first we saw the closure of the PEARL arctic research station; next, Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, an invaluable resource for Canadian marine research, had its budget cut by a third; finally, today it was announced that the Environmental Lakes Area, a system of test lakes in Ontario for aquatic research, would no longer be accepting new projects, and that all of its staff would be seeing a 100% reduction in pay.
These three make up some of the bastions of Canadian science.
While our government is focused on the development of the Arctic for its hydrocarbon, precious metal, and fisheries resources, as well as its strategic and shipping value, it would stand to reason that a proportionate amount of care go into understanding it. That’s what PEARL was for. Researchers there undertook valuable atmospheric research to monitor the arctic, a climate zone that will have increasing effects on the rest of the planet as it rapidly changes; already we’re seeing a destabilization of the arctic vortex, an atmospheric system that has huge impacts on weather patterns further south. But, it was deemed too expensive to operate. And at about the cost of the upgrade to the communication system of a single F-35 stealth fighter jet, it’s easy to see why we can’t afford to study the area the jets are being purchased to defend.
I have a particular affection for Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. It’s where I participated in a couple of nudibranch neuroanatomy (sea slug brain) research projects during my undergrad – an experience that cemented my love of the ocean, my respect for evolution and nature, and my acknowledgement that I would make a lousy career scientist. Set on the gorgeous remote west coast of Vancouver Island, deep in the rainforest, Bamfield hosts many dozens of scientists every year from all over the world, who come together in an open environment in state of the art laboratories. It’s the kind of place that reaffirms why scientists do what they do, and allows big-picture thinking while exploring the depths of marine biology problems. Naturally, I suppose, it’s the kind of place the Conservatives loathe.
The Environmental Lakes Area is the site of groundbreaking research into both acid rain and eutrophication by phosphorus, both major discoveries that have shaped industrial policy for decades, and without which we would have gone on doing huge environmental damage without knowing why. It’s perhaps for that very reason that Harper has elected to eliminate this particular piece of the environmental science puzzle: too much science, it turns out, may be possible.
Although these most recent attacks against environmental science (plus the elimination of DFO’s Contaminant Science program) can be linked to the tar sands push, due to their potential to silence future research that would condemn the ‘sands and related industries like pipelines and tankers, it’s looking now like the Conservatives are on a more general anti-environment push. What will come next remains to be seen, but it’s clear that whomever takes over in three years is going to be left with a badly damaged research (and physical) environment – and in the meantime, a whole generation of young environmental scientists are losing out on the opportunity to employ their skills and energy in a productive manner.