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The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada

by Chris Turner

Chris Turner is angry. And he has every right to be. In The War on Science, the veteran journalist lays out the federal Conservatives’ systematic efforts to remove science from Canadian politics. His argument is as simple as it is frightening: under Stephen Harper, Canada has gone from being a world leader in scientific research and a beacon of environmental stewardship to an embarrassment on the international stage. We have become a country where policy is in thrall to private-sector lobbying and ideological sloganeering.

Turner’s starting point is not, however, some idealized notion of Canada. In a rich historical chapter, he shows that economic interests have always come into conflict with scientific judgment. However, he also illustrates Canada’s long tradition of world-leading independent inquiry and governments willing to consider the counsel of ostensibly impartial experts. Indeed, such a relationship is key for the functioning of a modern liberal democratic state: governance decisions should be based on the largest possible body of evidence, which should undergird debate and decision-making. It is Turner’s contention that, under Harper, for the first time in Canadian history (and perhaps among modern democracies), politicians have been allowed to “dismiss the scientific method itself as irrelevant to the formulation of policy.”

The result, traced in graphic detail, reads like a eulogy for good governance. This is the story – by now familiar to Canadians – of savage budget cuts and muzzled federal employees. Importantly, Turner underscores that this issue transcends the environment and climate science. It affects how we address public health, crime, labour, immigration, and, ironically, economics. He persuasively shows that the war on science may, in the long term, hinder economic growth by hamstringing Canada’s capacity for innovation and its ability to develop and attract world-class human capital.

Turner’s work is certainly polemical, but, in the political climate Harper has created, a bit of vitriol may be exactly what is needed.