Facts Don’t Matter

Harper is gone, but pro-development governments continue to ignore science

By David W. Schindler

Like many Canadians, I’ve been surprised by the recent turmoil south of the border, where some politicians regard undocumented “alternative facts” as equivalent to the findings of science. The US is undertaking a science-trashing exercise without precedent. President Donald Trump has declared climate change a hoax devised by China and is committed to eliminating the US Climate Action Plan. Other people with well-known disdain for science have positions in the federal cabinet. Environmental regulations of all sorts have been rolled back (the budget for research on Great Lakes pollution was cut by 97 per cent) as part of a vague promise to “Make America Great Again.”

In Canada, reaction to US turmoil has largely been smug self-assurance that such craziness could not happen here. I disagree. It has happened here, and because of the poor state of science literacy among Canadian politicians, it is happening again, both federally and provincially.

Only a few years ago the Harper Conservatives muzzled Canadian government scientists. Advance copies of what a scientist would say to media had to be circulated among senior administrators who fussed over minor nuances of wording. They frequently suggested changes to downplay findings that conflicted with the government’s pro-industrial development stance. Often windows of opportunity for public discussion of science were missed. Many scientists stopped trying to communicate publicly; dealing with bureaucrats simply ate up too much time. Even papers given at scientific conferences required pre-approved, tightly scripted answers for press questions.

Sometimes government representatives were sent to conferences to monitor what federal scientists said publicly. This reminded me of my first international conference, in 1971, where KGB agents attended to monitor Soviet scientists.

The Canadian government also trashed science infrastructure. Internationally respected programs such as the Experimental Lakes Area, the Arctic Contaminants Program and the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory were closed. In the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), seven of 11 research libraries were shut down, their contents given or thrown away. Canadians were told no one used the libraries; DFO scientists disagreed. An editorial in the New York Times declared: “This is more than an attack on academic freedom. It is an attempt to guarantee public ignorance.” The British journal Nature had similar criticism.

The public is usually unaware that research they’ve paid for—for their own benefit or protection—is often ignored for political reasons.

Environmental regulations were weakened severely by adding riders to huge omnibus budget bills. Nationally and internationally, non-government scientists expressed outrage. On July 10, 2012, 3,000 scientists participated in a “Death of Evidence” march on Parliament Hill.

In 2015 Canadians finally reacted. The Liberals made reinstatement of government science an election issue, and they won. The government has since unmuzzled federal scientists; the right to speak publicly is now enshrined in scientists’ contracts with the federal government.

Does this mean that government is now listening to scientists? Hardly. Our environmental regulations remain a laughingstock, and science libraries appear gone for good. Too much science is still controlled by bureaucrats; in Alberta, political control is tightening. Meanwhile, Canadians should be aware that the downgrading of government science was a long, slow process that did not begin with the Harper government. It went on for several decades, under all governing parties, under the very noses of Canadians. And the root causes of this scientific illiteracy persist.

To understand the changing status of federal science, look no further than the evolving history of fisheries management in the 20th century, especially of our cod and salmon fisheries.

When I emigrated to Canada from the US in 1966, Canada had a sterling reputation for strong science-based fisheries management. Much of the credit for that rested with the venerable Fisheries Research Board of Canada (FRBC), an agency world-renowned for producing excellent aquatic science and publishing its own peer-reviewed scientific journal, the Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada. When I was a student in Europe, every lab I visited, even in the poorest Eastern Bloc countries, carried the FRBC Journal.

A few years after I joined the FRBC in 1968, I was proud that some of my own research was transformed into national policies to control algal blooms in the Great Lakes. Other countries, including the US and several European nations, rapidly emulated Canadian policies. Recent data show that algal control policies rooted in FRBC science have worked extremely well in the Great Lakes and in Europe. Similarly our work on acid rain, started under the FRBC, has provided the scientific underpinning for policies to control emissions of sulfur in Canada, the US and Europe.

Importantly, though it was funded publicly, the FRBC was not a civil service department. Formed in 1898 (and in 1912 becoming the Biological Board of Canada), the agency did not report directly to a minister. Instead it was governed by a board of senior Canadian aquatic scientists from universities, government and industry, who decided research priorities and allocated funds based on their perception of impending problems. By the time I happened along, the FRBC had several large research stations around the country, employing hundreds of scientists and technicians, but still with strong links to universities.

Perhaps because in its early years the FRBC was dominated by frugal scientists of Scottish origin, FRBC stations had little overhead or administration. Chains of command were short. As a young scientist, I had only one project leader in the flow chart between the lab director and me. Red tape was minimal.

Scientific decisions at FRBC stations were made in an egalitarian way. Board scientists engaged in fierce debate with bosses and even lab directors. Decisions were supported by strong consensus, and managers presenting the science to policymakers understood the reasoning. Parliamentarians appeared to welcome the input of science to sound environmental policy.

Even at that time, however, the FRBC was in jeopardy. Its success had created resistance among politicians who believed science should play little if any role in decisions about exploiting resources profitably. New government science departments were created within the civil service, where political control could be maintained. The Energy, Mines and Resources department was launched in 1966, supplanting the older, more independent Department of Mines and Technical Surveys. A brand new Department of Environment was created in 1971, supported by ministers who argued that the FRBC was incapable of looking after the increasing breadth of aquatic resource issues. After years of wrangling between Parliament and the FRBC board, on its 75th anniversary in 1973, the FRBC was dragged reluctantly into the civil service as the Fisheries and Marine Service division of the Department of Environment (DoE).

New civil service rules restricted hiring abroad and greatly slowed recruitment of talented new scientists, problems that remain today. Recruiting top scientists is like recruiting star athletes—even the global talent pool is not large. If civil service rules had been in place in 1968, I would not have qualified, as I was still a US citizen. Several other FRBC scientists from Europe and the US who later earned numerous national and international science awards for their work in Canada would also have been passed over. The FRBC was quickly reduced to an advisory role within the DoE. In 1979 it was disbanded completely.

After the “coup,” most of the experienced scientists who had directed the FRBC programs were replaced by career bureaucrats, many of whom knew little about fisheries. These were professional “managers” intent on adopting “business models” to increase departmental efficiencies. Bureaucracy burgeoned while routine scientific decisions were postponed by lengthy dithering, almost always unrelated to scientific issues. Policies that prioritized industrial development were favoured, and scientists were encouraged to address political “flavour of the day” environmental problems rather than take the FRBC’s long-term view. The production of science per dollar declined. John Ralston Saul has described government bureaucrats perfectly: “… highly sophisticated grease jockeys, trained to make the engine of government and business run but unsuited by training or temperament to drive the car or have any idea of where it could be steered….”

Upon attaining a senior administrative position, a candidate was required by the civil service to take a year off to learn French or English if they were not already fluent in both. This seemed odd to me: Why were candidates for science positions who had no science background or experience not required to take a similar remedial course in science? Significantly, in the year that the “boss” was away for language training, the conduct of science was not impeded, at least in our lab.

As a result, by the late 1980s, federal policies were already well down the slippery slope to not being science-based. Whole floors of the stations that had once been occupied by scientific personnel were now filled with advisers, accountants, policy wonks and public relations specialists focused on making the minister look good rather than protecting fisheries. The first order of business for a new deputy minister was always to reorganize the department and rename its units. A successful reorganization was a sure ticket to an eventual promotion or a move to a more prestigious department. The new, complicated names usually represented the ambitious DM’s idea of what the unit should be doing, rather than what it actually did or could do. The deputy would disappear after a couple of years, only to be replaced by an Ottawa clone with a similar background who would repeat the cycle. This happened again and again.

It was under this sort of “management” that the decline in support for science and in public communication by government scientists commenced, and it worsened under federal Liberals and Conservatives alike. PR specialists reporting to management were recruited and scientists were told to use them because their own explanations of their work might be too complex. In my experience, such PR people usually had an infantile command of science, diluting important scientific advances to explanations that made them seem inconsequential to the public.

A healthy democracy in the technological age requires science literacy among leaders and ordinary citizens alike.

Over time, the restrictions on scientist–public interaction became more onerous. The suppression of science led to some environmental casualties. Best known is the collapse of the northern cod fishery. A succession of ministers attempted a political balancing act between scientists who advised lowering quotas based on studies of declining stocks, and fishermen who warned of disastrous economic consequences if fishing were more restricted. Fisheries bureaucrats did not have the wisdom of Solomon. By 1992, researchers, fishermen and Canadians faced a collapsed cod fishery. Clearly there’s more to managing fisheries than being a well-trained policy wonk.

Another example of bureaucratic ignorance was the DFO decision to allow flows of the Nechako River in BC to be severely reduced to accommodate electricity generation for an aluminum smelter. DFO scientists predicted major reductions in the runs of chinook and sockeye salmon. But managers silenced them, and in 1987 DFO approved a flow rate for the Nechako very close to what the aluminum company requested. As the scientists had predicted, the salmon population plummeted. Sadly, the public is usually unaware that science they’ve paid for—for their own benefit or protection—is often ignored for political reasons.

Provincial governments also provide examples of politics trumping science. During the rapid expansion of Alberta’s oil sands industry, monitoring of rivers and other ecosystems was largely done by industry consultants and Alberta Environment. The province claimed industry activity was having an undetectable effect on the environment; it allowed further expansion. Independent studies, however, disputed the findings of industry’s monitoring. One of the studies I co-authored, for example, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the oil sands industry was releasing a substantial toxic load into the Athabasca River, including mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, nickel, silver and zinc at levels that often
exceeded those recommended by Alberta or Canada for protection of aquatic life.

Several high-profile reviews eventually confirmed that provincial agencies had performed shoddy science and oversight in the oil sands region. These studies recommended that monitoring be turned over to an independent agency to “restore public trust.” The result was the creation of Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA), envisioned to be an arm’s-length agency much like the original FRBC.

Formed in 2014 by the PC government, AEMERA had a strong science program but was plagued by imposed bureaucratic oversight, hindering its effectiveness. AEMERA also seemed to embarrass the new NDP government, because its existence suggested the province was incapable of monitoring without politicians running political interference.

In 2016 Environment Minister Shannon Phillips argued monitoring is the responsibility of the government itself. “Outsourcing this work was not the answer,” she announced. “Moving expertise back into government under the guidance of two panels reporting to a new provincial Chief Scientist will allow us to strengthen our scientific capacity and be more transparent and credible.” In short, Alberta scientists will once again report directly to provincial overseers, potentially with the same bureaucratic results witnessed at the DoE.

Phillips appears strongly committed to good science and high public visibility. Even so, in the long run in-house monitoring will fail to produce consistently good science as oversight is turned over to less-enlightened ministerial successors. Again, one need only look south of the border, where a strong Environmental Protection Agency under Barack Obama has now been gutted—and its funding used to support military expansion.

Another example is the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). In 2013 the agency replaced the old Energy Resources Conservation Board, with the mandate that the AER was now responsible for environmental protection as well as regulating industrial development. The AER is entirely funded by industry. So far the AER has not produced a single report that documents environmental damage caused by oil and
gas infrastructure. The fox again is in charge of the henhouse, a favourite Alberta energy ploy.

The abuse of science generally catches up with politicians, but only after the abuse has become very obvious. This was certainly one reason for the federal Conservative defeat in 2015. But Canadians must remain vigilant: Our environmental regulations are still those modified by the Harper government. The civil service too is unchanged: Top jobs are still occupied by career policy wonks with little understanding of science. And while more scientists may now speak about their research, they remain forbidden from public discussion of policy options.

Indeed, the environmental assessment process for large projects remains archaic. Bureaucrats argue that similar projects do not all require assessments, because they are similar. But many of them potentially affect areas of hundreds of square kilometres, making the likelihood of unique and important features very high. Some politicians argue that stringent provincial reviews obviate the need for federal reviews. But this is nonsense. The stringency of reviews differs widely between provinces, as does the degree of control provincial politicians and bureaucrats have over panel member appointments, terms of reference and use of panels’ recommendations.

Even when a full-scale federal review is ordered, the review panel is usually small—typically three or four people. Although it is an environmental assessment, rarely is a professional environmental scientist named as a panel member. More typical appointees include lawyers, engineers and social scientists. As a result, environmental damage is usually regarded as a lesser priority than economics, jobs or other political phenomena.

Usually a consulting firm hired by the proponent of the new development does the environmental assessment. Numerous large firms specialize in such assessments, using cookie-cutter procedures that often don’t fully consider ecologically unique features. Assessments are contained in environmental impact statements (EIS) that are often several thousand pages long. The 20 or so pages that may be relevant to assessing the proposed project are carefully hidden among thousands of pages of irrelevant maps, tables of measured elements and lists of poorly identified insects and other invertebrates. Remarkably, such nonsense has prevailed for decades. And woe to any consulting company that tells its industrial client a proposed project is bad for the environment. Drumming up future business would be very difficult.

After years of preparation, an EIS is sent to government-selected “affected” parties, who are typically expected to respond within a few weeks. Often, affected parties get no funding for scientific assistance in assessing the documents. Then there is a rushed hearing process, where a project proponent supported by a high-powered team of lawyers and numerous experienced pro-development consultants is usually opposed by a proponent supported by a couple of moonlighting, sleep-deprived university professors and a young, inexperienced lawyer acting pro bono. In short, the “playing field” is far from level. Like opera, it is all highly entertaining to watch. But the audience should know that when the fat lady sings, the project will almost always get the green light. Canadian environmental impact assessment is an international embarrassment. Citizens should demand an overhaul.

Another example requiring public scrutiny is Canada’s mid-century long-term greenhouse gas emission strategy. The federal plan was issued in 2016 with a triumphant press release that we could indeed meet our 2050 international commitments to reduce carbon—while further developing the oil sands and building several oil pipelines and LNG plants. Upon scrutiny, the various scenarios proposed all require generating over 100,000 MW of hydroelectric power, which we are assured is emissions free.

Forty years of detailed scientific research, mostly in Canada and much of it by federal scientists, show that hydroelectric reservoirs are significant long-term emitters of methane and carbon dioxide. Also, carbon dioxide emitted in the production of steel and concrete, power lines, land clearing and earth moving, all part of hydro development, is ignored. Certainly reservoirs emit less greenhouse gas than coal-fired plants generating the same amount of power, but their emissions are still significant. That policy wonks are still blissfully unaware of this after decades is very telling about the role of science in environmental decision-making. It would all be laughable if it did not affect the planet we must live on.

Every hydro reservoir built in Canada has also caused huge increases in mercury in fish, aquatic mammals and birds. The dams also block fish migration. Even if those problems could be diminished, all of the rivers large enough to consider for increases in power output are in indigenous homelands, where these organisms are important to subsistence. Generating over 100,000 MW of power would require 100 dams roughly the size of Site C in BC or Muskrat Falls in Newfoundland, both of which have been tied up by protests, litigation and spiralling construction costs. Build three huge dams a year for 30 years in remote areas? It will not happen.

Canadians must take the words of our national anthem seriously. In the 21st century, the words “we stand on guard for thee” imply much more than being willing to repel invading armies or detect terrorists among us. A healthy democracy in the technological age requires science literacy among leaders and ordinary citizens alike, so that environmental policies are grounded in facts and protect future generations—the true measure of sustainability.

It’s critical we know the rudiments of climate change science, and the pros and cons of the major proposed solutions, and that we witness the same from our representatives in government and transmit this knowledge to them if not. We simply cannot trust bureaucracy and the environmental impact review process to do the job for us.

It’s simpler than most people think to get accurate information on climate change and most other scientific topics of public interest from the Internet. Simply look for the positions taken by most of the world’s National Academies of Science. These result from the most knowledgeable people in the field assessing all of the arguments, debating them and adopting positions based on the weight of the best evidence. In contrast, information supplied by vested interests is dubious. Share your findings with your representatives in Parliament and provincial legislatures, and demand that their decisions be based on sound, verifiable science.


David Schindler is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at University of Alberta and an Officer of the Order of Canada.


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