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Discrediting scientists defending ELA is medieval

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The federal Conservatives have become internationally known for their disturbing penchant for muzzling government scientists. Perhaps less well known, and arguably more insidious, is the governing party's practice of attacking, ad hominem, scientists critical of its policies.

Take a recent fundraising letter, purportedly sent by the president of the Conservative riding association in Kenora, Ont. Discovered by the news website iPolitics, the memo asked residents in the riding of newly appointed science minister Greg Rickford to donate money for an oddly specific cause: to counter claims in a Star op-ed published this summer by a group of four Canadian scientists -- or, as the letter-writer refers to them, "the same group of radical ideologues who have lead (sic) a campaign of misinformation about Greg's work to protect the Experimental Lakes Area." (Neither the riding association nor Rickford has answered questions about the letter.)

The opinion piece in question criticized Rickford for failing to defend the ELA, the world-leading freshwater research centre that sits in his own backyard. The government inexplicably defunded the highly valuable, relatively inexpensive research facility in the 2012 omnibus budget. Given his apparent disregard for Canadian research, the opinion article asked, was Rickford the right choice to be science minister? Reasonable points reasonably made by a group of well-credentialed scientists.

So why the hostility?

It's true that, with Rickford's help, the federal government negotiated a deal that will see the facility's operating costs transferred to the Ontario government and a Manitoba-based think-tank. But it's a bit rich to tout Rickford's "work to protect" the ELA, since the existential threat from which he was supposedly shielding it was of his government's own making.

Worse is the language used to describe the authors. Not since the medieval period could defenders of science rightly be characterized as "radical ideologues." The government is free to defend its science policy against the many scientists who disapprove, but to attempt to discredit rather than debate them sends a message that critics will be punished. And in the absence of criticism our democracy suffers.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2013 A13

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