When Randy Musseau stood in a conference room in Halifax this week to teach the navy’s basic course in the field of passive acoustics, he had an unusual group of pupils: marine scientists who are among the first-ever civilian students to learn the military’s techniques for listening to the ocean.
The participants will use what they learn to better understand the effects of human activities on whales – information they can, in turn, share with the military to help protect the marine mammals.
“In my unit alone, we’ve been studying passive acoustics for 50 years,” said Mr. Musseau, training officer from the highly secure Trinity naval intelligence unit. “There are noises out there that we can classify immediately.”
The course is a modified version of the military’s basic passive acoustic analysis course, with classified material removed. Hansen Johnson, a marine bioacoustics researcher at Dalhousie University and one of the participants in the class, said the knowledge exchange will be a two-way street.
The Northwest Passage was one of the most coveted geographical prizes of the 19th century. Dozens of ships attempted to find it, and most, like the doomed Franklin expedition, failed. Times have changed, however; ever-growing numbers of cruise ships and freighters make the transit each year with the benefit of modern charts, satellite navigation and thinning ice.
This week, Canada is taking the reins of the Arctic Council as the Northwest Passage literally and figuratively heats up. Canada claims rights to the route, although that has been disputed by other nations – but that is far from the only disputed claim in the Arctic. Debates over mineral rights, territorial boundaries and Aboriginal rights have been ongoing for centuries.
In order to provide a forum for some of these discussions, the Arctic Council was established over the course of the 1990s and includes all countries with territory in the Arctic: Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Denmark (which represents its dependencies in Greenland and the Faroe Islands). Canada served as the first chair of the Council from 1996-1998.
The work of the Arctic Council
Most of the decisions made at the Arctic Council never become legally binding treaties. To date, only one document has become binding for the member states: a treaty on search-and-rescue. But that isn’t to say that the work the Council does is unimportant; it is one of the few bodies in the world focused on the serious environmental, economic and social issues facing the Arctic and its people, and the world’s only circumpolar political forum.
In the last two years, the chairmanship has been held by Sweden. In last year’s meeting in Stockholm, working groups reported on oil spill preparedness and climate change adaptation, and similar reports are expected at the Kiruna ministers’ meeting. Five of the six current working groups are reporting on issues of environmental importance, from heavy metal contamination to wildlife conservation.
On top of these ongoing issues, Canada’s incoming chairperson, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, has announced plans to integrate industry interests into the workings of the council.
The Arctic Council is structured to allow various degree of involvement for nations
and groups without Arctic territory. Some indigenous groups are considered “permanent participants,” meaning that they have the right to consultation in relation to the council’s negotiations and decisions and can address the council and raise points of order. Observer nations, permanent or ad-hoc, are allowed to attend meetings and join working groups. Even some nongovernmental groups, such as the United Nations Development Programme and the International Red Cross, have observer status.
However, with the growing international interest in the North, some ad-hoc observer nations are seeking a bigger role. China and the EU have requested permanent observer status, along with India, Japan, Italy, Singapore, Mongolia and South Korea. Already, six European nations are permanent observers. To achieve this status, permanent observers are required to recognize the rights of Arctic nations on the council’s terms; this includes recognizing their sovereignty in the Arctic, the rights of indigenous peoples and the role of the Arctic Council as an authority. The member states will decide on whether to grant observer status to these countries at this week’s meeting in Kiruna, Sweden; Canada and Russia have already expressed a reluctance to give the non-Arctic states a bigger role.
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.
There’s a new website up – that’s right, the Internet has a new member! It even has some of my writing on it. My colleague Allison Griner (@allgriner) and I wrote our piece, “Eco-Partners: Fighting together for the health of an inlet” over the course of the last term. We worked with members of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation and environmentalists to see what their relationship looks like. Is one manipulating the other? Where do First Nations identity and environmental protection overlap – and where don’t they?
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.
This is a file I requested under Freedom of Information laws from the BC provincial cabinet, regarding their announcement last July about Northern Gateway (ie, “getting our fair share of the benefits…”)
The only part that was not redacted were the words
“Hope this helps,
An interview with activist Jodie Emery, whose husband, Marc Emery, is in prison in the United States for exporting marijuana seeds.
Jodie is a prominent cannabis activist in Canada, and has a show on the popular alternative television station, PotTV. The movement scored a win this month when Colorado and Washington states voted to legalize marijuana.
“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 competitionwithin 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.
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.
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.
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.