In principle, Ottawa’s decision to shut seven seldom-used aquatics research libraries seems logical. Operated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, they cost about $430,000 a year to run. Fewer than a dozen non-DFO employees visit each year. At a time when DFO has been told to cut its budget by $80-million, and documents can easily be digitally archived, the math of maintaining bricks and mortar just doesn’t add up.
But the federal government has managed to fumble all of this so spectacularly that the library closings have come to resemble scenes from a dystopian sci-fi novel. Stacks of academic books being tossed into dumpsters; scientists complaining of a campaign to muzzle them; decades’ worth of environmental research junked. Most people manage to clean out their basements with more finesse.
Ottawa could have avoided the current controversy if it had calmly consulted with federal scientists, beforehand. DFO could have circulated an inventory of the collection and sought scientific advice to determine what’s important – what could be consolidated or digitized and what was redundant.
Instead, Canadians are left with the impression of oblivious bureaucrats, hastily presiding over a chaotic and irreversible cull of scientific research. It’s a small story, but it’s telling. And it is symptomatic of a broader, troubling tendency: the Conservative government’s propensity to push through on policy without much consultation. Two years ago, the Prime Minister announced sweeping changes to the Old Age Security system – at a speech in Switzerland. An overhaul of employment insurance rules was similarly done with little study, and no parliamentary scrutiny. The downsizing of the libraries – a relatively small line item in DFO’s budget – should have been orderly and transparent process. Instead, it looked like a rummage sale.