Review: The War on Science by Chris Turner

Author: Chris Turner 
Title: The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Willful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada
Format/Source: Paperback/Library
Published: March 2014
Publisher: Greystone Books
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Popular non-fiction
Why I Read: To learn more about scientific research in Canada + Harper’s treatment of Canadian scientists
Read If You’re: Canadian, invested in science, or interested in science+politics
Quote: See below
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads | Chapters | Amazon 

In The War on Science, Chris Turner explores the relationship between scientific research and the Canadian government, focusing on the dismal role of science in the Harper government. The sensationalist title summarizes the book well. If you think Canada is a good example of an environmental steward – think again. The federal government has been viciously cutting funding of scientific research, research meant to inform government policy. The reason for this cutting, Turner argues, is that the research would tell the government to stop doing what they’re doing, which they do not want to hear. Written in a highly accessible and passionate style and coming in at just 134 pages (remainder is chronology and bibliography), this book is likely meant to appeal to the uninitiated. In that regard, The War on Science is a good introduction to those unfamiliar with how the Canadian government presently manages and responds to scientific research.  For myself, this was a topic I wanted to learn more about. Turner covered some events about which I already knew (ex. scientists’ protest on Parliament Hill, funding to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory cut for a year), but he also provided more history and context for those events so I learnt what prompted them and what they imply.

This is one of those books where it will be easier for me to write about its weaknesses, because this book has just one great strength, albeit one that makes up for all shortcomings. That strength lies in the subject matter. I’m glad this book exists – a published, non-academic book that has the potential to be read by a lot of people. I think many Canadians would be incensed by Harper’s treatment of scientists and scientific research if they understood what was happening. This could be the book to spread that awareness. There are a lot of great quips that summarize the bulk of this work, when Turner really hits the nail on the head. Here’s a sampling:

“To accelerate the exploitation of Canada’s resource wealth – that’s the explicit part. To eliminate its ability to see the cost of this policy – that’s the implicit part” (46).

“Instead of freeing scientists to establish the best methods to conserve natural resources, the government has crippled their ability to gather and disseminate the data demonstrating the consequences of policy decisions” (67). 

“This is the essence of the new culture of government under Stephen Harper. The purpose of research – of science generally – is to create economic opportunities for industry, and the purpose of government is to assist in that process in whatever way it can” (112).

However, those quips also embody the weaker side of this book. My biggest disappointment is that the book is largely undeveloped. The quotes above get to the heart of the book, but there isn’t a lot backing them. As I described above, it’s probably meant to be an introduction to the subject to get people worked up about the issue, but I would have loved to see more analysis, evidence, backing, explaining of why science is important and how it relates to government policy. This is what the entire book is about, but it’s too too short to really do the argument justice. Turner largely relays what’s happened so far and saying “This is terrible!” without fleshing out why too much. He relies heavily on the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) as an example of a science project doing something good then being cut. A lot of the examples are explained generally or vaguely, and there is a lot of repetition. For example, he argues multiple times that “the same budget gave Revenue Canada $8 million to audit environmental groups believed to be backed by deep-pocketed foreign radicals – a sum that could have…” (101) done this or that. In other areas Turner adopts an almost melodramatic tone (see, for example, his framing Northern Gateway Pipeline on page 93), which could make it easy for detractors to dismantle his argument. I agree with Turner’s message – that the Harper government is doing an immense disservice to Canadians and the Canadian environment by dismissing scientific research – but by the end of the book I was less-than-impressed with its overall tone.

The Bottom Line: It’s easier to pick on the weaknesses of this book, but really, The War on Science is a good introduction for people who are unfamiliar with what’s been going in Canadian government with regards to science. It is by no means an exhaustive book, and I don’t think it’ll change the minds of anyone who supports the Harper government’s treatment of science, but I recommend it because it’s an easy read tackling an important subject.