Book review: The War on Science by Chris Turner

I started noticing it as a post-doc. I’d had a great deal of success applying to federal funding programs through NSERC as a graduate student and had also been successful in securing an NSERC PDF to support my research at that time. One year when I was a post-doc I heard a lot of grumbling from students only a few years behind me in their career about how difficult it was to be competitive for an NSERC PDF because the number of awards available had plummeted from previous years. Shortly thereafter, NSERC instituted the unpopular binning system for the Discovery Grants program and many principal investigators that I knew weren’t happy with the new status quo. During the years of my post-doc I had several government scientists tell me that they weren’t able to attend the regular meetings that they used to go to. The paperwork involved to get permission to attend just wasn’t worth the time investment and hassle. Then came the rumours that the Experimental Lakes Area and the PEARL institutions were at risk of closing. I attended a scientific conference and received confirmation that many government scientists were being prevented from sharing their experimental results with the public. We’ve since seen an expansion of national funding programs designed to produce “innovation” and links to industry. I was pretty embarrassed when Canada failed to live up to its commitments in the Kyoto agreement. I was dismayed by the changes to the Fisheries Act. All of these occurrences have resulted in a general feeling of unease about the future of the scientific enterprise in Canada. I’ve been a bit slow to put all of the pieces together. A scary realization was crystallized for me when I read a book last week; these are not isolated incidents, but in fact part of a disturbing plan.
I think that Chris Turner’s 2013 book “The War on Science” should be recommended reading for all Canadians. He makes a compelling case that our ability to conduct science as a nation is being consciously reduced in favour of the ability to utilize our natural resources. To say that the information presented in this book is eye opening is an understatement. The information presented in this book is disturbing and serves as a wake-up call to all Canadians. There has always been a tension in this country since the arrival of Europeans between our ability to exploit the bounty of nature and our responsibility to preserve and protect it. Mr. Turner rightly points out that we can no longer rest on our past environmental successes and that recent policy changes will position us as the laughingstock of the world when it comes to the protection of the planet. If you think that doing basic science research is vitally important to Canada’s future you must read this book.
The book is an interesting read and I learned a lot about Canada’s political and environmental history by reading it. That alone makes it worth reading. The book’s power is how it has made me question the policy implemented by the current federal government. I used to think that some of the policy choices were made simply out of ignorance, however the thesis in this book is that these changes were made for more nefarious reasons and were carefully plotted. I think that a love for the outdoors and nature is one of those unquantifiable things that make us Canadian. I am hoping that I don’t have to bank on it in order to halt the damage that has already occurred to Canada’s environmental protection and scientific research policies. The book is a 2-3 hour read and I highly recommend it.

One thought on “Book review: The War on Science by Chris Turner

  1. hi Allison,
    I’ve been checking out your interesting blogs from time to time. As always, you really seem to ‘hit the nail on the head’ with your comments. Anyways, I recently enjoyed a talk by Chris Turner here at Queen’s. He was an engaging speaker and although ‘preaching to the converted’ he certainly drove home his message about our current federal government’s ‘war on science’ and their lack of vision for anything beyond the next couple of years. I’m at best one more NSERC Discovery Grant away from retirement, but really hope that the tide turns ASAP for younger faculty such as yourself who are doing their best to develop an internationally competitive research program despite being faced with massive cuts by our incumbent government and their horrific and undemocratic approach to science, the environment, climate change, etc. I just returned from an interesting visit with plant science colleagues & collaborators at Chinese Academy of Science labs in Shanghai & Beijing. The state of the art facilities, equipment, and massive resources and funding that the Chinese are devoting to basic/fundamental studies in plant sciences/agriculture, and environmental research etc. is simply staggering. Coupled with very hard working, well educated, and smart PI’s (& their many students) I don’t see how we can compete. However, I must try to stay optimistic -> that we will soon be governed by a leader and their party who will appreciate the value and many long-term benefits to our society, economy, and overall health and well-being of investing Canadian taxpayer dollars in basic-fundamental scientific research and education (along with initiatives that will hopefully make Canada a world leader, rather than laughing stock, in developing innovative technologies and solutions for combating climate change and protecting the environment, including renewable energy & biofuels etc – rather than having an economic platform that seems largely based upon developing the ‘tar sands’ & building more pipelines ).

    best wishes, Bill

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