The office, created in 2004 by the Liberal government of Paul Martin and led by Arthur Carty, was intended to provide independent expert advice to the prime minister on matters of national policy related to science, ranging from nanotechnology, high energy particle physics and ocean technologies to climate change and the environment.
Carty, who did not wish to be interviewed for this story, was well suited for the role. He had served 10 years as president of the National Research Council and 27 years in the chemistry department at University of Waterloo.
“It was an exciting experience to be there because, for the first two years, we were actually advising the prime minister,” said Paul Dufour, former interim executive director of the office.
When the Tories came to power under Stephen Harper, the office, which cost about $1.5 million a year to operate, was shuffled out of the Privy Council Office – the department responsible for providing advice to the prime minister – and folded into Industry Canada.
"[That] was where things kind of started to devolve instead of evolve,” Dufour said.
Soon after the election, the Tories signalled that significant changes would be made in areas where science and policy intersected, beginning with the Kyoto Protocol, the legally binding agreement on reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions, which the Liberals had signed in 1997. The Tories proceeded to cut funding for several climate-change programs, including the One Tonne Challenge, a $45-million Liberal program that encouraged Canadians to reduce emissions. The Tories would eventually withdraw Canada from the Kyoto accord.
The government also went to work on a new national science and technology strategy with little input from the national science adviser’s office, Dufour said.
Announced by Harper in 2007, the strategy, called “Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage,” marked a major shift away from scientific goals to economic and labour-market priorities. The strategy established three priorities for science in Canada: to make the country a magnet for skilled people; to translate knowledge into commercial applications to generate wealth; and to lead developments that generate health, environmental, societal, and economic benefits.
Then, in early in 2008, Harper announced the elimination of the Office of the National Science Advisor. At the time, the prime minister described Carty as “an eminent Canadian who voluntarily took his retirement,” according to a transcript of the House of Commons debates.
Carty told a much different story when he appeared a month later before the standing committee on industry, science and technology, where he was called to testify about his tenure.
“I want to make it unambiguously clear that I conveyed my intention to retire from the public service only after I had been informed that the office was being closed,” he told MPs.
Conservatives on the committee grilled Carty on his expense claims but asked few questions about his tenure.
“It was pretty nasty,” said Dufour, who attended the committee meeting. “It was pretty ugly, and it got very political, very quickly.”
The elimination of Carty’s office marked the beginning of what critics describe as a systematic reshaping of scientific inquiry and research in this country by way of budget cuts, censorship, message control and intimidation.
Many believe these changes are being driven by ideology and the federal government’s pursuit of economic growth without regard for environmental consequences."