Honesty, Integrity, and Transparency Stuck in the Tar Sands – Canada’s Failed Science Policy

Posted by on April 23, 2013
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Kent and McQueen vancouver sunPhoto from Vancouver Sun

Yesterday was Earth Day.  Peter Kent, Minister of Environment in the Harper Government teamed up with Diana McQueen, Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development to announce the launch of a “New Online Portal for Accessing Oil Sands Environmental Monitoring Data and Information from the Oil Sands”.  It is at www.JointOilSandsMonitoring.ca, and it looks quite pretty with a series of evocative photos at the top and not too much text per page.  The press release claims Peter Kent said, “”Today, as the world celebrates Earth Day and showcases commitments to protecting the environment, Canada is contributing and doing our part, by delivering on our collective promise to ensure that scientific data from the monitoring activity is transparent and accessible. With this portal, our respective governments are actively encouraging informed discussions and analysis on the impacts of oil sands development.”

And tag-teaming all the way, Diana McQueen said, “Alberta is proud to co-lead the development and implementation of this world-class, science-based monitoring program for the oil sands.  By openly reporting on our data and our progress, we are ensuring the rest of the world recognizes our commitment to responsible and sustainable resource development.”

Indeed, if one visits the site, and delves a couple of pages down, one can discover whole spreadsheets of raw, unfiltered data.  But what exactly does all this really mean?  I went in through the ‘latest data’ page and ‘water latest data’ and downloaded the PAH data for 2011 and 2012.  The file gives no outward hint of its origin bearing a front page with two images carrying a disclaimer that these are essentially raw data, and detailing the meaning of certain codes.  The disclaimer (barely legible) reports that the data have been made available as soon as they were received from “the laboratory”, that they have been verified and validated according to Environment Canada procedures, and that they may get further correction before being recorded in Environment Canada’s authoritative ACBIS database.  This all sounds like standard procedure except that there is nowhere an identification of the laboratory or the scientist responsible.  Using the Excel file information page, I found that someone called Nancy Glozier was the file’s author and that the file originated from Environment Canada.  You know how reliable these information pages are if you have ever messed around with MS Office files.  Anyway I googled Nancy Glozier and confirmed she is a scientist at Environment Canada’s PNR Wildlife Research Centre in Saskatoon.  An attempt to find out more was not rewarding and the most recent peer-reviewed paper I could find by her was one in 2005 in which she was the fourth of six authors (Science of the Total Environment 343 (2005) 135– 154).  Fittingly, this article concerned effects of mining effluent on fish.  [A few hours after I posted this, a friend contacted me to advise he knew Nancy, that she was now retired from Environment Canada, and that he had heard her on CBC speaking out against the Harper Government’s science agenda — sounds like she is a real scientist, to me.]

tar-sands-2-1000 Dodge Pembina

Didn’t find this on the new Canada-Alberta website!  Photo © David Dodge, Pembina Institute

Normally, I would conclude that these are real data from Dr. Glozier’s lab, and they probably are.  But I cannot be certain.  Because this is a Harper government performance, not the usual way in which science is done.

This joint website is notable for not being affiliated in any way with either the federal or the provincial environmental science department led by the respective ministers.  It is not even a gc.ca website, although each page includes a ‘terms and conditions’ statement and a ‘license agreement’ both of which confirm that the federal government takes no responsibility for the accuracy of the data nor for how they may be used.  Scientists are invisible, not even mentioned, and the data available are more a wikileak dump than an orderly delivery of science information by scientists.  This is not the usual way that science is conveyed to the public.

Our world contains a number of quite fragile entities.  Beyond the physically fragile snowflakes, eggshells, and gossamer there are honesty, integrity, and transparency.  The process of science requires all three of these because science depends on the progressive communal effort to build one new discovery on top of another, and it is too easy to cheat.  Scientists have to have reasonable confidence in the honesty and integrity of each other or the system cannot work.

fragility_by_starykocur-d49w67d

Science depends on the fragility of honesty, integrity and transparency.  Photo © *Starykokur

At its most basic level, science proceeds when a scientist develops a new hypothesis and devises an experiment, or a series of observations to test the correctness of that hypothesis.  She or he collects data during those observations or experiment, and the data permit a test of the hypothesis.  Typically, the data, or analyses of them, are part of the written report the scientist produces, and are the basis on which he or she draws conclusions.  Other scientists read the report, hear a presentation of the results, or discuss the research with the scientist and accept or raise questions concerning the conclusions reached and the approach taken.  Science moves forward step by baby step.  But all of this interaction within the science community fundamentally depends on the assumption by all involved that every scientist is seeking to obtain the most accurate data and to use them to the best of his or her ability to draw statistically and logically valid conclusions.  Rarely is a scientist scrutinized by a jury while collecting or evaluating data; peer review steps in at the time of publication and peer reviewers have to begin with the assumption that the data reported are indeed the data that were obtained.  As anyone who has ever handled an Excel file knows, you can alter a number and resave the file and it looks as pristine as ever. Some scientists have fudged data, created data, or stolen other people’s data and/or evaluations – the beautiful paradox of the global science effort is that cases of such cheating have been very rare indeed.  Scientists tend to be far more honest, conscientious, careful, even fastidious about the collection and evaluation of data than we have any reason to suspect.  They get their recognition and rewards by being so, and by hard work, not by cheating the system.

I have no doubt that Nancy Glozier and other Environment Canada scientists have the same high standards as other members of the science community, but the Harper Government over the last several years has been systematically destroying Canada’s capacity to do science and the ability of government scientists to convey their science to the wider science community and the public.  Now, apparently in fear that the Keystone XL pipeline may not get approval in the US, this government is teaming up with the Alberta government to portray Canada as a normal, responsible democracy with both the capacity and the willingness to protect the environment from the effects of tar sands mining.  I fear that the damage they already have done dooms this attempt to appear active, honest, and open.

We are repeatedly told that Canada “is halfway to achieving its 2020 commitment on reducing GHG emissions” when the reality is that we have made scarcely any progress since first signing Kyoto and are heading for a mammoth failure.  We are told that the systematic removal of environmental safeguards buried in a series of omnibus budget bills is a matter of improving efficiency, eliminating wasteful duplication, and removing obstacles that unjustifiably impede the progress of the oil and gas industry.  Yes they have removed obstacles, but those obstacles are there for a reason – to prevent multinational corporations running roughshod over our environment.  But our Harper Government responded to pressure from the multinationals to ease their road.  We are told that it is important for Canada that science results be accurately reported in the media, and this laudable goal is then used to justify the muzzling of federal scientists, the very people who are in the best position to present the results of their own research accurately to the media.  Instead, interviews are to be managed by public relations or communications experts.  There have even been recent attempts to muzzle non-federal and foreign scientists who are collaborating with Federal experts.  As a Canadian scientist, it is embarrassing to see this blatant silencing of our Federal scientists reported on in the pages of Science or Nature, the premier science weeklies.  We have been told that the Experimental Lakes Region (ELA) is no longer needed, and that ceasing to support it after 40 successful years was a cost-saving, efficiency measure, but Canada is now entering a period of substantial climate change while faced with a number of other environmental stressors and the science community has been firmly of the opinion that the ELA is definitely needed now and in the future, and impossible to replace.  That it is unique worldwide, and has generated research that has led to major international policy with respect to environment seems by the way to the Harper Government.  All the time these mistruths have been advanced by Harper Government spokesmen, downsizing of the Federal science agencies has been chewing away at their capacity to do the science, let alone report it to the world.

When a government has built a solid track record of reducing scientific capacity in so many different ways over so many years, when it has made it obvious that the less access scientists have to the media or the public the better, when it has made it even more obvious that the political message of the day trumps real scientific data or understanding, it becomes difficult to suddenly become scientifically responsible.  The new website, divorced as it is from the scientists who generated the data, is a political instrument.  It is intended to deflect criticism that in my opinion is fully justified.  This Harper Government has decided that helping the multinational corporations grow the tar sands industry as rapidly as possible is the best way to keep Canada’s economy strong.  It has decided that a little bit of environmental damage can be ignored, that environmental scientists can safely be ignored most of the time, and that environmental activists are only foreign-supported radicals and traitors anyway.  Now, seeing Keystone XL at risk, worrying about Northern Gateway and growing opposition to other pipeline developments in Canada, watching our national deficit grow, and fearing for its own longevity, the Harper Government is undertaking a greenwashing exercise of epic proportion.  Are the data on the site accurate?  Probably.  Are they complete?  Perhaps.  Do I have any confidence in them, or in the claim on the website that “Overall, the levels of contaminants in water and in air are not a cause for concern”?  Not any more confidence than I have in any other political statement on environment by the Harper Government.  This is another sad day for Canada – this government may now be incapable of becoming responsible with respect to environmental science.

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