The discovery of one of the two lost ships of the Franklin Expedition is a historic moment, and the Canadian government and the groups it worked with to make it possible deserve congratulations. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper's celebratory announcement on Tuesday is also an example of his government's selective embrace of science.
The Harper government that boasts of spending millions to find the Franklin ship is the same one that cancelled the $2-million annual funding for the Experimental Lakes Area in 2012, a decision that led to the Ontario facility's temporary closure. The ELA had been a critical scientific research centre that, among other things, had helped show the world the dangers of phosphorus in effluent and the damage caused by acid rain. Its defunding was criticized by scientists around the world; the ELA and its decades of research were only saved when a non-profit group stepped in.
This is also the same Harper government that stopped funding to a foundation that supported a High Arctic atmospheric research laboratory doing critical long-term research on climate change. The defunding would have forced the station to close in 2012; only sustained public outcry resulted in new federal money.
As well, the government that allowed journalists open access to the scientists looking for the Franklin ships is the same one that has routinely gagged government scientists since taking power. It is now impossible in Canada for a reporter to speak with a federal scientist without going through media relations officers, a lengthy and often fruitless process. The policy has been condemned by the British scientific journal Nature and by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Mr. Harper's announcement of the discovery of one of the Franklin ships is a model of how government and science can work together. This kind of co-operation and trust should happen more often, and not just in the pursuit of the Prime Minister's pet research project.