Who is Gary Goodyear – and why should we fire him?

Gary Goodyear is a chiropractor, family man, and a Christian. He doesn’t believe in evolution. He is not a scientist, and has never published a scientific article. He does have some strong opinions on science, however: this week, his approach to science (as laid out in his statement last week) was elucidated when his colleague*, National Research Council president John R. McDougall said that “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”

This is not a rare opinion to hold; lots of people don’t understand the basic premises of scientific research, insofar as some of its most important discoveries, commercial and otherwise, are discovered by accident over the course of “noncommercial” research. And more importantly, some important scientific fields, like conservation biology or deep-space physics, just don’t have a commercial application. So why should we care what some chiropractor thinks about science?

Because Gary Goodyear is in charge of Canadian science – and he was appointed not by other scientists or even by the public. He is an MP, who was appointed by Stephen Harper as the Minister of State (Science and Technology.) This puts him at the head of science for Industry Canada; as you might have guessed, Industry Canada is responsible for our biggest science funding agency, NSERC. And as you might have also guessed, scientific funding in Canada is in big, big trouble.

This week’s comments are just the latest attack on science from this government. In fact, they essentially sum up what many people have been saying all along, which is that this government doesn’t know what science is, or what it does. It’s just annoying witchcraft that keeps buzzing around Harper’s head saying things like “bad idea,” and “environmental destruction,” and “responsible resource development,” and otherwise getting in the way of getting the oil out, now, for cheap. Right now.

Gary Goodyear is only now the most prominent example of why Canada needs to reform how we assign cabinet posts. Why should a chiropractor be able to drop basic science research in favour of what the Toronto Star has called, fittingly, a $900-million subsidy to business? Why should a journalist be in charge of the environment, an accident and injury lawyer in charge of finance, and career politicians be in charge of both national defence and international relations?

Aren’t these jobs better suited to people who know what the consequences of their transparent, politically-driven, shortsighted, and downright stupid actions are?

*Correction: the statement was made by John McDougall, the NRC president, not by Gary Goodyear. McDougall was, however, reiterating what Goodyear said last week, albeit in a much more quotable form. 

Norway, the Heritage Fund, and Ralph Bucks

Why, in Edmonton, the heart of Canadian resource wealth, is the University of Alberta $40-million in the hole? Why is the president of the University of British Columbia – in a province bragging that its natural gas wealth will make it the next Alberta – saying it will have to shut down programs because of budget cuts?

I hate to bring up the old Norway analogy, but Norway should be the energy-rich economy our energy-richest provinces should want to compare themselves to. General social welfare aside (because that wouldn’t even be fair), Norwegian students are actually paid generous grants to study at any of its universities, rather than graduating with crippling debt.
We say Norway is expensive, because it’s expensive to eat out, get drunk, and buy things we don’t need. But in Canada, students can’t even afford to get an education.

Former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein was praised last week in the National Post for his work in reducing the province’s deficit. What wasn’t mentioned is that in the process, he raided the province’s rainy-day piggy bank, the Heritage Fund. This fund was established in 1976 with the understanding that oil wealth doesn’t last forever. Then, as Klein led Alberta through the 2000s, with talk of the province as an “energy superpower” never far from his lips, the fund flatlined. Today, it stands at $16.4-billion, just a year’s worth of royalties higher than in 1987, according to an industry promotional website.

And back to Norway – its fossil fuel royalties go straight into its own fund. The value of that fund should enrage every Albertan who has been told again and again that oil wealth is providing for the next generation and not just buying trucks and iPads for the province’s young men and women who could afford to pay for their engineering degrees. Norway’s $710-billion fund (43 times that of “superpower” Alberta) is one of the world’s largest investors. It’s a safety blanket for the entire Norwegian economy, whose GDP is just $485-billion. That’s a year and a half of the country’s entire economic output in one giant bank account.


My point is this: if Alberta is an energy superpower, why can’t it afford to educate the next generation of engineers to exploit its resource wealth? Across the fence, we British Columbians should ask ourselves the same thing before we buy into the LNG boom.

Blink (or fall into a coma) and you’ll miss it

Yesterday’s announcement by PM Harper in Vancouver – that science, not politics will determine whether Northern Gateway will be approved – was taken disturbingly to heart by the media today. This is coming from a PM who just a few months ago gave himself and his cabinet (ie, himself) the power to overrule the already-compromised Joint Review Panel, and who has already expressed his full support for the project. There is no way he can be taken seriously at this point when he says things like this, so why has he been taken at his word?

The Calgary Herald gave Harper a free pass, not even mentioning the earlier moves, and even saying he “responded” to the BC-Alberta dispute over royalties, when his actual words were “I’m not going to get into an argument or a discussion about how we divide hypothetical revenues.” That’s not responding, that’s avoiding completely.

Most newspapers, including the National Post and the Toronto Star, did manage to point out the disconnect between yesterday’s comments and the past seven months of ham-fisted pounding of the political and legal opposition to the pipeline, or at least the irony of these comments in light of having made the scientific approach utterly redundant. The Globe and Mail completely neglected to hold Harper to account for this latest hypocrisy, however, only addressing his comments on the BC-Alberta dispute (which were nonexistent).

Some stories suggested that this could be a sign that he is backing away from the project in light of popular opposition to it, preparing to jump ship at a later date or at least allowing some wiggle room for its potential failure. Maybe so, but I personally don’t buy it. This is not a PM who cares about the feelings of a few “radicals”; plus, he just last week imposed a time limit on the review process. I think it’s much more likely that Harper is buying some time and trying to distance himself from the BC-Alberta debate, pawning off the negative impacts of the project on Alberta while he gets to play the impartial judge. If the “scientific review” comes back against the project (highly unlikely given the National Energy Board’s track record on large projects) he still has the power to overturn the decision, so for now, it may as well be somebody else’s fight.

That awkward moment when Putin takes cues from Harper

What does it tell us when Vladmir Putin, leader of what is likely the most oppressive “Western” nation on the planet, speaks in the same political terms as our own prime minister? Normally, we might say that this is a step in the right direction for Russia; in this case, we would be wrong. Putin’s latest move is not an example of a developing economy approaching a higher standard. Rather, it is our country moving downhill, slipping closer to a petrostate whose oil wealth affords those in power a stronger hold, while forcing an escalation of repression to maintain that power.

petrostate (ˈpɛtrəˌsteɪt)
derogatory a small oil-rich country in which institutions are weak and wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few

The move I am referring to is eerily similar to a discussion that has dominated Canadian politics since January. A new Russian law states that NGOs must declare any funding they receive from abroad, and label themselves “foreign agents”. Sound familiar? If you are a Canadian, and watch the news, this will sound uncannily like our Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver, declaring this January that the Northern Gateway bitumen pipeline project hearings are being hijacked by “foreign-funded radicals”. This sentiment was soon echoed by pro-pipeline groups like Ethical Oil, and thereafter by a special Senate enquiry into the funding of environmental groups. Environmental groups have been on the defensive ever since. Meanwhile, the rights to ever-larger swaths of Northern Alberta have been sold off to Chinese, American, Norwegian, French, and British oil companies, while our federal government fights tooth and nail for China’s right to get bitumen, and BC premier Christy Clark calculates how much the health of the west coast is worth.

The tactic of distracting national attention towards the shoestring budgets of a few green groups has been recognized since the beginning as a transparent political attack against the opposition to the pipeline. What’s interesting is the emerging parallel between our government and that of one of the world’s best-known petrostates, Russia. For the first time, Mr. Harper is ahead of Mr. Putin in cracking down on those in the way of his plans. It seems that great minds (or is it big heads?) think alike.

See: http://www.economist.com/node/21559342

What we don’t know, and what it will do to us

Saving money is a noble goal. It’s something all Western governments have been neglecting for decades as we built up huge rolling budget deficits, passing the buck (or lack thereof) onto, well, us. Preventing money from flowing out of government coffers is half of the answer to our financial woes, alongside increasing government revenues. Cutting spending is a logical move towards balancing our books, and doing that unfortunately requires sacrificing jobs, projects, and even entire programs.

But.

Why is science bearing the brunt of these cuts? Is science really the most inefficient, wasteful area in which money is spent? How about the military? For instance, $10-billion in ‘overlooked’ F-35 costs. Or base budgets that need to be used up annually, leading to a massive spending binge every April, burning money just to ensure there’s money available to burn next year. Why, in particular, are the cuts concentrated in areas that are inconvenient to an “emerging energy superpower”? Why is a $79.3-million program like contaminant science being cut and replaced with a fund worth a lousy million and a half dollars? 

Contaminant science is an absolutely indispensable area of environmental science, becoming ever more relevant as our country commits to a future as hewers of wood and drawers of water – or, I should say, diggers of tar sand and diggers of tar sand. Contaminant science is what is going to give us the tools and knowledge to protect what is truly our most valuable resource – clean water, in oceans, rivers, lakes, and wetlands – over the next fifty years.

$80-million dollars is a laughably small price to pay if it means we get to know what is going into our water, and by extension, into us. But maybe that’s the point. 

Lofty ideas might crash and burn

Don’t expect Stephen Harper to go to his knees and beg forgiveness for the F-35 scandal; he has no knees. However, this might work out for us anyway.

Let’s take a moment to imagine the day that Stephen Harper admits defeat on the F-35 jets. He cancels the order, fires Peter MacKay, and calls an election, saying, “I’m sorry we lied. We purposely misled Canadians on the cost of these jets, knowingly omitting ten billion dollars in operational costs to make this huge expenditure more palatable to a country experiencing massive cuts to every public department. We screwed up, and we want to give you another shot to pick the right party for the job.”

Wouldn’t that be a great day? Sure, if it were even a little bit possible.

First of all, the Harper government will never admit wrongdoing; that would be political suicide. Second, even if by some miracle they did admit having fudged the numbers, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Paul Martin’s Liberals were brought down by a vote of no confidence in 2006 on a similar (well, not similar – it was only $100m; but that aside, somewhat similar) scandal. But the only way to bring down a government on a vote of no confidence is to have at least as many opposition MPs as there are government MPs. And that is not the case: the Conservatives have a majority. There will be no vote.

The most we can expect in terms of “making it right” is a few rolling, likely innocent, bureaucrat heads. We won’t see Peter MacKay sent out to pasture, nor will we see a solemn apology from the prime minister.

The lies and cost overruns notwithstanding, there is one other thing we can hope for from the government: we can hope that they take this scandal as an opportunity to re-evaluate the F-35 purchase. Once they have a scapegoat on whom to lay all the blame for the clumsy way in which this has been handled, the government will be free to take a second look at the jets and say, publicly, that they might not be our best choice.

Time to pull the 'chute on the F-35s?

Of course we need planes. We have an air force in order to defend our sovereignty, to participate in peacekeeping missions, and to support NATO missions overseas. Are single-engine stealth fighter-bombers the best choice for that? Absolutely not. They are awesome in a little-boy ‘pew pew pew’ sense, but in a boring, cost-benefit ratio sort of way, they are a massive waste of money. One suggestion that has been made is the upgraded model of what we already have, the dual-engine F-18 fighters. They have more range (to better patrol the arctic) and our pilots, mechanics, and other support staff are already trained on them. We already know how to get parts for them, and our equipment is designed around them.

The F-35 scandal will not bring down the government. Just like the Afghan detainees scandal, the robocalls scandal, or the general contempt of parliament, this issue will not cripple the government. They are un-crippleable. However, it might give them, and by extension us, another shot at making a good decision on how to defend our airspace.