With the budding of a new school year, university students across the country are eagerly starting out on the next chapter of their lives in pursuit of their passions, but for many in biological and environmental science, that future may be quite bleak. As science students, we are taught about the importance of collecting good data, which is only way to provide evidence to support a hypothesis, but that foundation is being systematically eroded from the political policy- making processes in Canada.
Over the last few months, the Harper government has drastically threatened the ability of scientists nationwide to conduct important biological and environmental research. Let’s first start with the Omnibus Budget Bill that purged the Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act. The Bill came into law in June and contained provisions in the Environmental Assessment Act that drastically reduced the number and scope of projects that will require evaluation before approval. The protection of habitat was removed from the Fisheries Act, designating protection of areas only containing economically or culturally important species, thus eliminating most of the regulations that would prevent private development of sensitive aquatic areas.
Another major event of the early summer was the announcement of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) closure in Spring 2013. It seems fitting that as I sat in one of my first biology lectures of the semester, I was once again reminded of the significant contribution of Canadian scientists and the ELA worldwide.
The ELA is often known for the classic experiment conducted by Dr. David Schindler that led to the discovery of phosphorus as a limiting nutrient in fresh water environments. The study concluded that phosphates, often coming from soaps and detergents, in many fresh water systems, were the cause of the huge algae blooms and the collapse of many aquatic ecosystems, which ultimately led to countries world-wide banning phosphates in these products. The beauty of this experiment, and others conducted at the ELA, was the ability to measure the impacts on a real ecosystem, rather than conducting smaller scale and more controlled lab experiments.
Other important research at the ELA led to a better understanding of the effects of acid rain on aquatic environments, the effects of various chemicals such as birth control hormones and heavy metals on fish, and proposed future research aimed to study the effects of particles released into fresh water at tar sands sites.
The ELA costs $2 million dollars a year to run, yet it will cost the government $50 million dollars to shut it down. So it’s not even really about the money, as Harper would like to have us all believe. After all, you can’t really make environmentally sound arguments that can be used to affect political decisions without scientific evidence, so why not just prevent the evidence from being collected in the first place? Another major cut to funding will lead to the closure of the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory in Nunavut, an atmospheric research facility collecting climate data. Again, another research area that could potentially threaten Harper’s policies if they were able to make any conclusions about climate change.
Though the future of science and the environment seems to be looking grim at the moment, there is some hope. In response to many of these events, 2000 scientists and science students marched to Parliament Hill to hold a mock funeral for the ‘death of evidence’ in July. However, there has been a calming down in the media coverage of many of these issues, and now that parliament is about to resume again after the summer break, it is more important than ever to not forget what has been happening. The slow erosion over time of valid scientific research is how the Harper government will win the battle over evidence.
As science students, we are often contained within a bubble at school, surrounded by like-minded peers and teachers; but it is so much more important now to also be aware of how science relates to the greater community and how it is influenced by and influences political policies. Science is not an individual discipline; rather it is collaboration among peers with all different research interests contributing to a better understanding of the world around us. As the next generation of scientists, it is our responsibility to fight the political agendas that aim to destroy the pursuit of evidence, and to ensure that our representatives make informed decisions about the preservation of our planet for generations to come.
Further reading on some of the recent environmental cutbacks by the Harper Government: