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In Defence of Blue Sky Science

By Carla Hustak

I recently interviewed environmental scientist and Ryerson University professor, Michael Arts. Arts has been the subject of considerable media attention for his experience with the Harper government’s cuts, restrictions on the communications of his findings, and, finally, the loss of his job at Environment Canada. From my conversation with Arts, I gained valuable insight into how the life of a federal scientist has dramatically changed in the Harper years. To my question of how the practice of science has changed under the Harper Government, Arts cited two critical changes. First, he noted the altered relations between the federal government and federal scientists and, second, the shift in the direction of research funding and priorities.

Arts on the Changing Government-Scientist Relationship

“Well, I think I see many things. One of them is that I notice there is an increase in control of science in the government. When I was a government scientist in the 1990s, I found that it was more collegial. It was more about managers interacting with scientists in a collegial way to decide what the next directions would be. But increasingly over time it became top down heavy where you were being told what to do rather than your opinion being solicited. And which to me is completely backwards because, I would argue, why would you hire experts and then not listen to them.”

Defunding Blue Sky Research, Funding Industry Research

“And then the other thing that I’ve noticed is a really strong emphasis on science that is very applied and industry-focused. It used to be that there was a balance. Some people worked on very applied things directly related to industry needs and then there were other scientists who did more blue-sky research. The thing about blue sky research is that it is very important because you have no way of knowing if what sounds like a crazy idea in 2015, could result in the most amazing discovery in 2017. And there’s no way to predict that. But you cut that off and force more people to do industry-related science by shaping the funding. Scientists have to go where the funding is.”

Arts and I also discussed the implications of Harper’s various cuts to environmental monitoring programs, the closures of laboratories, and the dismissals of scientists in terms of the loss of scientific data and the significantly diminished capacity for Canadian scientists to contribute to the international scientific community. Arts explained that “You’re losing infrastructure, you’re losing people, you’re losing equipment, you’re losing capacity. So that’s got to have a negative effect on the government’s ability to deliver on the science that Canadians want.” On the subject of the cuts to Arctic monitoring programs, Arts highlighted how this would impede our ability to even test the effectiveness of a particular remediation process. As Arts pointed out, “you can’t see what’s going on. That’s the thing, we’re flying blind without these monitoring programs.”

The Future for Environmental Science in Canada

Arts is optimistic that, despite radical cuts and closures, the infrastructure for practicing science in Canada can be rebuilt. So, what would it take? Arts highlighted the need for a better relationship between the government and federal scientists: one marked by “making things more open, more collegial.” It would also take different commitments than those currently espoused by the Harper Government. As Arts emphasized, “I wouldn’t block blue sky science because I think that is really going to generate the kinds of discoveries we need in the future.” And what in particular might be those kinds of discoveries? Arts stressed his personal opinion that Canada needs to invest in renewable sources of energy such as tidal energy and solar energy. He believes that “it’s an investment in Canada’s future. Do we want to invest in a technology that is proven to be causing problems on the planet or do we want to try to invest in a technology that will make those problems go away or, at least, be reduced? To me, that is not a complicated question.”

Carla Hustak is a Research Fellow with the Technoscience Research Unit at the University of Toronto. She is a historian of gender, sex, race, science and the environment. This piece is adapted from a longer version of Carla’s interview with Michael Arts, which can be found here