Month: January 2014

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is failing us

Everyone likes Chris Hadfield. His engaging personality and boyish passion for spaceflight is contagious, and Hadfield has probably done more to popularize the space program than any one person since Neil Armstrong.

And Hadfield is a master of public relations. He has over a million twitter followers. He’s got a fun Tumbler account. He’s inserted all sorts of pop culture references into the trailer for his new book. And, of course, there’s his Space Oddity video.

But while Hadfield has a larger than life persona and has literally left the planet, he is very much of this world. His passion for space flight would not have been realized were it not for immense public investment (read: tax dollars) spent on schooling, on the astronaut program and, above all, on scientific research. The decisions to spend money on science are political decisions, crafted in the messy world of partisan politics, hardball lobbying and at times ugly electioneering. But we all benefit from these investments, and Hadfield additionally has personally benefitted. Hadfield would not be who he is now, were it not for the messy politics behind our collective agreement to tax ourselves and spend the money on scientific research.

And yet, the Harper government is cutting spending  on scientific research at every turn.  As Chris Turner, a Calgary journalist whose book The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Willful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canadaexplained in the Toronto Star:

The long-form census has been scrapped, replaced by a voluntary “National Household Survey” that spends more money to deliver substantially less reliable data. Canada has backed out of the Kyoto accord, opted out of the UN’s Vienna Declaration on HIV/AIDS (which advocates for evidence-based drug policies), and distinguished itself as the only nation in the UN to drop out of the Convention to Combat Desertification.

The list of environmental science bodies and programs eliminated or reduced is alarmingly long in an age of mounting environmental catastrophe. The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science is gone, as is the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy. The Experimental Lakes Area — the world’s leading freshwater research facility — was sent begging to the province of Ontario and a Winnipeg NGO. Omnibus budget cuts forced the summary abandonment of nearly 500 environmental impact assessments nationwide. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Habitat Management Program has been slashed back, and the DFO has shuttered seven of its 11 libraries. This is nowhere near a comprehensive list — more like the greatest budgetary hits.

We should all be speaking out against these cuts in scientific research, and those of us with higher profiles should lead the charge. And, arguably, there is no Canadian better placed to defend investment in science than Hadfield: he has name recognition, is popular, and has the moral authority and respect that comes from a lifetime spent in the sciences. Moreover, Hadfield is retired and, unlike the working scientists who have been muzzled by the Harper government, Hadfield faces no possible retribution for speaking his mind freely.

But in the face of these on-going attacks on science, Hadfield has been remarkably silent. If Hadfield has ever addressed the issue, I can’t find a reference for it. He certainly hasn’t taken a strongly public and critical view of the cuts in science funding, the decimation of research or the silencing of scientists.

I raised this issue on Twitter yesterday, and got a reply from Hadfield’s son Evan, who often serves as Hadfield’s agent:

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This is a remarkable notion, that taking a political stand—yes, telling people they are “wrong”—is inappropriate. Those who cut science funding are, in fact, wrong. We live in a real world, with actual proper and improper policies, with good and bad politics, with right and wrong views of things. Anyone who actually does science knows that in order to fully understand the world, you have to have a view, make decisions, take action. “All sides are equal” just doesn’t cut it.

My exchange with Evan Hadfield continued:

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Clearly, Evan Hadfield has not been paying attention. Creationists and the anti-science folk  in general (climate change deniers, those who don’t want to study the environmental effects of the tar sands, etc) are not interested in a conversation. The entire point of the war on science is not to engage scientists, but to shut them up.

We’re not going to win this war by having nice, polite conversations with the anti-science crowd. We’ll win it—if we win it—through hardball politics, calling the ignorance out, and taking public stands that sway public opinion.

Evan Hadfield says he doesn’t like calling this a “war on science.” I disagree, but fair enough, he wants a “conversation.” So where’s the conversation, Chris Hadfield? I don’t see a conversation. On the one hand, there are cuts in science spending, the silencing of scientists, the decimation of research projects. On the other hand, there’s silence. In this case, given Hadfield’s personal benefit from past scientific research, his profile, skills and responsibilities, silence is complicity.

Here’s how you “start a conversation”: You write op-ed pieces. You speak to reporters. You testify before parliament. You can’t have a “conversation” unless you, well, speak.

Can you please start speaking, Chris Hadfield?