The Canadian War on...

Knowledge, science, information, common sense, openness?

A whole bunch of things are under attack by various conservatively-minded levels of government here in Canada.

Those of you thinking of moving north to avoid the insanity might want to have a second thought.

It seems that we normally smug and superior Canadians have recently...

Walked away from statistically valid methods of collecting census data

The head of Statistics Canada has delivered an extraordinary rebuke to the Harper government over its plan to scrap the mandatory long-form census, quitting his post in a highly public letter that bluntly undercuts Conservative efforts to sell the changes.

Chief statistician Munir Sheikh, who helmed what has been ranked among the top statistical agencies in the world, used his agency's own website as a last act Wednesday evening to fire a shot across the bow of the Prime Minister's Office.


"I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion ... the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census," Mr. Sheikh wrote.

"It can not," he said.

Targeted public libraries

Hundreds of striking library workers gathered in front of Toronto City Hall Monday, March 19, on Day One of a strike that will see all 98 Toronto Public Library branches shut until an agreement can be reached.

But if the current library board proposal on job security stands, CUPE Local 4948 President Maureen O'Reilly told her members that some of those branches could be closed permanently as a part of Mayor Rob Ford's cost-cutting agenda.


"In 2012 at the launch of the budget the mayor made the announcement he wants to get rid of 7,000 city workers - he said we're all lazy and he wants to get rid of us," said O'Reilly.

Commercialized the research agenda

Today, "blue-sky" research is a term used in honour of Tyndall to remind us how important scientific discoveries are most often led by scientists' questions rather than others' goals and directives. Basic scientific research often challenges accepted thinking, leading to fundamental paradigm shifts and unexpected innovations of great importance. From the discovery of X-rays and nylon to superconductivity, medical imaging, computers and GPSs, it is clear that true scientific progress is driven by basic research without specific outcomes or applications in mind.

Unfortunately, this important lesson has been lost on the Conservative government. Recently, Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear made this clear with the alarming announcement that he is turning Canada's renowned National Research Council into a "concierge" for industry. The NRC, established in 1916 to conduct basic research, is according to Goodyear to be transformed into a service centre, a "one-stop, 1-800, 'I have a solution for your business problem'."

Reduced Our National Library & Archives to a disgrace

I asked the woman at reception why there weren't any exhibits on display. "There hasn't been anything here for more than a year and a half" she told me.

I later learned that management of the main floor of the building has been turned over to Public Works, meaning that community organizations previously free to rent space for their various book related events and activities at no charge, now have to pay "market rates". The Library itself no longer, apparently, has control over its own space.


What I saw today, within stark, neglected walls, was evidence of a serious abdication of responsibility at Library and Archives Canada. A failure to do justice to our past. This is nothing short of a national disgrace.

Muzzled our scientists (Nature)

One of the world's leading scientific journals has criticized the federal government for policies that limit its scientists from speaking publicly about their research.

The journal, Nature, says in an editorial in this week's issue that it is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free.

It notes that Canada and the United States have undergone role reversals in the past six years, with the U.S. adopting more open practices since the end of George W. Bush's presidency while Canada has been going in the opposite direction.

Prompted The Canadian Association of Science Writers and others to push back

Dear Prime Minister Harper,

Over the past four years, journalists and scientists alike have exposed the disturbing practices of the Canadian government in denying journalists timely access to government scientists. Open letters to your government from concerned journalists have been followed by editorials and public lectures calling for improved access. Still, cases of government muzzling of publicly funded scientists continue.

Last fall, Environment Canada prevented Dr. David Tarasick from speaking to journalists about his ozone layer research, work which had been published in the journal Nature. And earlier, the Privy Council Office stopped Kristina Miller, a researcher at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, from granting interviews about her work--findings that had been published in the journal Science on the causes of sockeye salmon decline in British Columbia.


Prime Minister, we want freedom of speech for federal scientists because we believe it makes for better journalism, for a more informed public, for a healthier democracy, and it makes it more likely that Canadians will reap the maximum benefit from the research they fund.

And caused normally polite and deferential Canadians to air their dirty laundry at international conferences

"Orwellian" is the term one Canadian environmental scientist used to describe the conservative Harper government's policy of requiring scientists to get political officials' approval for interviews with the press -- and submit to Saddam-style "minders" sitting in on the interviews.

The complaints came out at the Vancouver meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this month -- the main multidisciplinary science conference held yearly on the continent.

"I suspect the federal government would prefer that its scientists don't discuss research that points out just how serious the climate change challenge is," Prof Thomas Pedersen of University of Victoria told BBC News. Canada this year withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In a February 17, 2012, panel at the AAAS meeting, both scientists and journalists criticized the written Canadian policy. It is similar to ones in effect at some US science agencies. SEJ has opposed such policies as a denial of the public's right to know and an obstruction to journalists doing their jobs.

Now, of course most of these individual issues are not as black and white as these snippets would lead us to believe, but taken together they clearly indicate a higher agenda at work -- that knowledge, science, information are all suspect and to be discouraged.

BTW, you non-Canadians out there have no idea how much it kills us to read stuff like, "Canada and the United States have undergone role reversals in the past six years, with the U.S. adopting more open practices since the end of George W. Bush's presidency while Canada has been going in the opposite direction."

Be careful who you vote for.

I wrote on this blog a little while back about the outsourcing of Canada's national science library, NRC-CISTI, which is part of this long term trend.

(It's worth noting that I didn't vote for any of these particular people.)


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