For the last few months, the most famous Canadian hasn’t been a pop star with stratospheric fame, but a man sitting far above it. Chris Hadfield’s tour as Commander of the International Space Station was as inspiring as it was informative for those millions of earthlings who followed his journey via his video updates (complete with cool space experiments) or his gorgeous photos of our home planet. While he was up there, Hadfield unveiled the new Canadian $5 bill, complete with a picture of the Canadarm on the back. The day it was unveiled, the finance minister, Jim Flaherty, said the bill showcased “the profound courage, determination and ingenuity of our nation and its people.”
As he usually does when one of the 34 million-odd citizens he governs does something special, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper had a nice message Monday for astronaut Chris Hadfield on his return to Earth. “The tireless and unique efforts by Commander Hadfield to educate Canada and the world about the final frontier, which were in addition to his very onerous duties as commander of the space station, are nothing short of inspirational and have helped rekindle the dreams and excitement of becoming an astronaut.” Harper said in a statement.
It went unmentioned in Harper’s statement that, thanks to the government’s recent push to cut its spending in each department, the Canadian Space Agency was asked in the 2012 spring federal budget to slash $29.5 million in spending before the 2014-15 fiscal year. That’s from the CSA’s annual budget of about $300 million – a figure that had remained virtually unchanged for an entire decade prior to the announced cuts. One expert told the CBC at the time that while the cuts might impact current operations, the real threat was to the future, raising the possibility that the CSA might simply run out of money to fund new projects in the coming years.
And then there’s everything else.
In case you missed it, last week the government announced new funding to the National Research Council ($121 million over two years), but that it would come along with a shift in focus for the research and development agency. Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology told a news conference that there are “only two good reasons why we do science and technology.” The first, he said, was to push the frontiers of understanding. The second: “to use knowledge for social and economic benefit.” John McDougall, the NRC’s president described it in much simpler terms: “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.” Over at Slate, Phil Plait said he had to “read the article two or three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something because I was thinking that no one could possibly utter such colossally ignorant statements,” when he saw McDougall’s comments. Plait called it “monumentally backwards thinking.” But it happened.
So, too, has the outright muzzling of federal scientists, who in the past few years (read: since the Conservative government took power), have increasingly had to act like public relations specialists, forced to go through a maze of permission checks before speaking to media and (which are often denied), and in some cases, like at the 2010 International Polar Year conference in Montreal, actually shadowed by communications flaks whose job it was to make sure nothing controversial was said about stuff like climate change. In his piece for Maclean’s earlier this month, Jonathon Gatehouse rattles off a few more examples:
• David Tarasick, an Environment Canada scientist, was prevented from doing interviews about a Naturepaper on an unprecedented hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic in the fall of 2011. Reporters were instead provided with “media lines” he had no hand in creating. (Tarasick was eventually given permission to talk two weeks later, well after interest had died down.)
• Scott Dallimore, a Natural Resources geologist, was denied permission to talk about 2010 work for the same journal on a massive flood that inundated northern Canada 13,000 years ago—despite his attempts to assure his bosses via email that it was “a blue sky paper,” with no links to “minerals, energy or anthropogenic climate change.”
• Kristi Miller, a salmon researcher with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, produced a 2011 paper raising the possibility that a mysterious virus was responsible for the rapid decline of the sockeye population in the Fraser River. It took eight months before government minders finally freed her to discuss her findings in an appearance before the Cohen commission, a federal judicial inquiry into the dwindling fish stocks.
• Mary Waiser, an Environment Canada water researcher, was denied permission to speak about two papers she’d written for the department disclosing the presence of chemicals and pharmaceuticals in Saskatchewan’s Wascana Creek, downstream from Regina’s sewage treatment plant.
In other words, it’s difficult to read laudatory statements about the glorious successes of an internationally-renowned Canadian scientist like Chris Hadfield from the finance minister or the prime minister’s office without feeling somewhat cynical about the whole thing – or just laughing. What Hadfield showed us was that simply learning about how our planet and universe operate is often reason enough to spend the money to send people like him shooting off into the cosmos to check it all out and send back word on what happens. Maybe some day, one of the ISS experiments will bankroll a private enterprise. But maybe not. Does it matter? Maybe something Hadfield said while in space could have run counter to some political messaging on Earth. Does that matter, either?
Think of all the things we loved about Hadfield’s trip. Now picture a government media hack floating beside him the whole time, operating the camera.