No, Mr. Baird, it shouldn’t agree with you

“It should agree with Canadians. It should agree with the government. No discussion of a carbon tax that would kill and hurt Canadian families.”

-John Baird, MP

When Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, a career politician and Harper’s favourite lapdog, admitted that the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was being shut down for disagreeing with the political leanings of the current government, he pulled the curtain back for a rare honest glimpse into the Conservatives’ opinion on science. That is, he showed us that if it can’t be controlled, if there is a chance that an organization will produce reports, evidence, or PR that is contrary to the messaging coming from Ottawa, it will not be long for this world.

As a long-time politician, someone who entered politics straight out of university and can always be counted on to leap to the defence of the latest Harper move, John Baird is exactly the type of cabinet minister you would expect such a quote from. He is also the exact type of cabinet minister we need to get rid of in some sort of Old Testament purge; a flood might be the poetic way to do it, but any old plague will do. He is totally unqualified to talk about anything but politics, which is why he’s the perfect example of a Canadian cabinet minister: he knows when to nod, and when to shake with apparent rage at whatever he’s being told to shake with rage at.

The NRTEE is not the only, or even the latest, example of a scientific institution being punished for its inconvenient truths. The world famous Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario has long published studies on freshwater pollution effects; some recent studies have found evidence that mercury poisoning in lakes can be reversed, contradicting the oil industry’s claim that the lake is beyond help. The University of Alberta’s Dr. David Schindler, an eminent freshwater research scientist who is always good for a statement on these issues, was quoted in the Globe and Mail: “My guess is our current managers don’t like to see this kind of [research] because the oil sands have an exponentially increasing output of mercury. I think the real problem is we have a bunch of people running science in this country who don’t even know what science is.”

Mr. Baird’s assertion that a scientific institution should “agree with Canadians” is perverse. Science should not be asked to agree with anyone. That’s not the purpose of science. Agreeing unconditionally with the ideology of the PM is the purpose of parasitical sycophants like John Baird. A government that does not respect the fundamental need for science organizations – even government-funded ones – to maintain an arm’s length from politics is in a very dangerous position.

The consequences of such an attitude have been seen before, and they aren’t pretty. Try Mao’s Four Pests Campaign to see how well a country fares when it ignores the pleas of scientists, in favour of fantasy. We run the risk of becoming a nation deliberately burying our heads in the sand: dismantling environmental reviews, eliminating the long-form census, or cutting the contaminant science program at Environment Canada do not make the problems go away. They just make it harder to find out about them. Are we going to go the route of North Carolina next, and make sea level rise illegal? Seems a bit crazy, but just like them, we have already started to punish scientists who do the wrong research.

With even the oil elite in Calgary insisting that they want a carbon tax, who the hell is John Baird to dance on the grave of an organization that has been calling for one for years? A carbon tax, by putting a price on carbon, would increase competition within and between industries to reduce emissions, inspiring innovation in a way that blanket regulations and minimum targets cannot.

Now that the feds have admitted that this was a political decision, and not about saving money, we can say for certain that the $2-million annually that the ELA cost likely suffered from the same careful pruning of scientific capabilities; you might say the same for PEARL, Bamfield, the oil spill response centres on the West Coast and others – especially given that the National Round Table cost more than each of those.

When you add up their costs, in fact, it is comparable to the $8-million earmarked for the taxman to investigate the funding of environmental groups. It might be simplistic, but it’s painfully ironic to see money being diverted from essential scientific facilities for blatantly political reasons, only to be used to attack environmental groups for the same reason. It’s a two-pronged approach: bleed inconvenient science while starving inconvenient opposition.

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