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book review

Scientists at Parliament Hill protesting governmental cuts.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

It's fair to say that the bewigged visage of Roland-Michel Barrin de La Galissonière does not loom large in the Canadian psyche.

A naval commander and governor of New France in the mid-18th century, La Galissonière brought the spirit of the French Enlightenment to the new world and a passion for science to his colonial duties. For two short years, from 1747 to 1749, he was a whirlwind of inquisitiveness, directing his officers to observe, collect, chart, record and otherwise thoroughly document the natural history of the interior.

Then La Galissonière was recalled to Europe and the administration of what would eventually become British North America was left to those of a less empirical bent. Not until Sanford Fleming arrived from Scotland a century later was there as strong a push in Canada to be at the leading edge of scientific discovery.

The historic might-have-been sets the context for Chris Turner's look at how science is faring today under the government of Stephen Harper. While indifference to science is a recurring theme among Canada's political leaders, Turner, a journalist and author, argues that something more sinister is currently afoot in the federal government: a willful disregard for data and a systematic targeting of those areas of research that are not commensurate with political objectives.

Turner's reportage begins with a profile of the organizers behind a 2012 demonstration of scientists on Parliament Hill – as unlikely a development as many who follow the research world expected to see from Canada. But Turner, who ran as a Green Party candidate in a by-election last year, is far from a dispassionate observer. What the Harper agenda amounts to, he writes, is "a bureaucratic war on science, on reason – on the very foundations of Enlightenment thought."

In making his case, Turner chronicles the past few years of government interaction with scientists and science policy. It is a troubled record to be sure, including Canada's withdrawal from the Kyoto accord, a data vacuum created by the abolishment of the long-form census and the government's ongoing obsession with message control that has kept federal scientists from speaking freely and hampered journalists from reporting on their research.

This is preamble. In Turner's portrayal, a majority win in the 2011 election clears the way for a group of senior cabinet minister to craft bill C-38, a legislative fusillade that "revises half a dozen key pieces of environmental legislation, rewrites the Fisheries Act, closes several major environmental research facilities, and reduces the government's ability to monitor and respond to environmental problems across the board." Little wonder that scientists are soon marching in protest as the international research community looks on in bewilderment.

These events have been covered in the media but it is useful to have them presented in sequential form. The pattern is convincing, but the presumed motive – that the federal government is seeking to brush aside regulatory hurdles to further oil sands development – seems too narrow to be the full story.

It's possible, after all, to imagine a regime that furthers business aims without simultaneously appearing to undermine its relationship to the foundations of rational thought. It's not just scientists who get nervous when a government seems to want to operate without expert advice and good data. Why, exactly, has the Harper government chosen to portray itself that way?

This sort of situation has arisen before. In The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney documents the rise of anti-science policies during the administration of George W. Bush, and the transformation of a party that in previous eras established the role of presidential science adviser, created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Endangered Species Act into law.

Clearly, there are echoes of the Bush playbook in the Harper government's heavy-handed dealings with public science. Similarly, Turner's book echoes Mooney's, right down to the title, but it lacks a deeper analysis of the culture clash that underlies the Canadian version of the conflict. It also leaves untouched a more enduring and troubling question that is not applicable to the U.S.: Why is science in Canada not a more robust and better defended enterprise to begin with?

It's a question that is likely to remain long after the Harper government is retired. When science is under siege, Americans can look to Ben Franklin as a cultural reference point. It's a pity Canada saw so little of his contemporary, La Galissonière.

Ivan Semeniuk is The Globe and Mail's science reporter.

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