02 May 2008

Bush-League: The Conservative Party's Attack on Science and Reason

One of the hallmarks of the George W Bush Administration in the US is its attack on science, and the favouring of populism over intelligence and reason. Two articles in the past two days provide clear indication that the Stephen Harper regime in Canada - ironically known as Canada's New Government(tm) - follows in the same ideological footsteps as our neighbour to the south.

In yesterday's Star, Peter Calamai writes an opinion piece, based on a talk he gave at the conference on Statistics, Science and Public Policy at the International Study Centre of Queen's University at Herstmonceux Castle in England. In it, he describes the debacle over the shutdown of the Chalk River nuclear facility last fall.
In the end, the federal government acted out of gut political instincts in the absence of well-founded and independent science advice. Perhaps because the Prime Minister felt he had lost his customary tight control over events, he lashed out in a personal attack on the integrity of Linda Keen, the president of the safety commission. Other ministers and MPs followed suit. These attacks sent a chill through the entire regulatory community.
In today's Globe, there is an article about the Harper government effectively stopping research on the Insite safe injection site in Vancouver, a tremendously successful experiment in harm reduction as attested to by 22 peer-reviewed papers published in a variety of scientific journals.
An independent scientific review led Health Canada in the spring of 2006 to recommend that funding for the project be extended and that similar programs be tried in other cities.

But federal Health Minister Tony Clement intervened, saying there were too many unanswered questions and placed a moratorium on this type of research. The journal article says that was done at the behest of police organizations and based on political concerns, not sound public health policy. ... Ottawa subsequently offered money for additional research, but with the proviso that investigators refrain from disseminating their findings until after the exemption for the safe injection site expires. Dr. Wood [the director of Insite] said this amounts to "muzzling researchers." The University of British Columbia deemed that condition ethically unacceptable and so its researchers did not apply for the grants.
For those not familiar with funding issues, extension of the funding for the site would be dependent on the results of the research, which, if suppressed until after the funding runs out, would guarantee the site would be shut down. Ethics protocols in Canada would deem this to be unethical, since there is prior evidence that the site is beneficial, and so tying the funding to a condition that a beneficial program be shut down is deemed unacceptable by university ethics boards.

What we are seeing here is the triumph of ideology over evidence and logic; a law-and-order doctrine trumping a reduction in human suffering, and, interestingly enough, a reduction in health care expenses incurred by the public purse. But Stephen Harper is a father-knows-best type of interventionist, and in his view, none of us in this country are truly citizens, but Stephen's children, to be "guided" with a firm hand and strict discipline.

To quote the Globe headline, despicable!

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