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:

Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 10.52.06 AM

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:

Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 10.57.55 AM

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?

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17 comments

  1. I disagree with you Tim: not in terms of intent but in terms of method. And I think what the Hadfields are doing/saying is correct.

    The real argument against funding scientific research stems from a prioritization of the economy. It’s easy for someone to think that measuring the environmental impact of resource extraction (read: not just tar sands but EVERYTHING else, like mines, etc.) will stunt economic growth. And maybe they’re right.

    One other major change that occurred under the current government (I wish people would stop using the term “the Harper Government” that’s what he wants…the country voted him in, shitty voting system and all…so we should take ownership of our own government – but I digress).

    Back to the other major change that occurred under this government: they re-focused the NRC’s projects on commercialization of science and tech. So instead of researching the effects of chemicals on the environment (anyone ever heard of phthalates? They mimic hormones, which trigger pretty much every process in the human body – and they’re found in anything that’s scented – again I digress).

    So instead of researching the effects of, say, phthalates on children’s development we instead focus on how to commercialize something like phthalates – and then we complain about how our health care system should be more proactive (because it’s cheaper to prevent than to cure).

    So I think what we really need to do is re-prioritize things. And to argue with you Tim, I think Hadfield, by making science fun and free of politics, helps to re-prioritize the joy of curiosity, which should then drive policy.

    If he comes out swinging, people will not listen. They will turn him off like every other pundit out there who screams and tears their hair out about how Harper is destroying Canada. The reason they’ll tune him out is because they think Harper is doing a good job with the economy, so fuck science.

    To sum up: Chris Hadfield makes science fun. And that’s a better way to change people’s minds than ranting and raving in the news.

    Because nobody really likes the news 😉

      1. Post didn’t appear correctly… It was meant as a reply to Bill… So i can’t agree more with his point. That is not Hadfield job.

    1. One can disagree and do so strongly and vocifereously and still be polite. You don’t have to be an asshole to make a point, and deriding it as “‘can’t we all just get along’ bullshit” is a strawman mischaracterization.

    2. Indeed! Harper doesn’t believe in being civil!
      He has to be called out for the evil monster that he is!

  2. Robert Reich on the “let’s all get along” bullshit: “New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks wrote yesterday that we should be focusing on the ‘interrelated social problems of the poor’ rather than inequality, and they are fundamentally different. Baloney. …most absurdly, Brooks doesn’t think we should be talking about unequal political power, because that causes ‘divisiveness’ and makes it harder to reach political consensus over what to do for the poor. Hogwash. For more than thirty years, as wealth has accumulated at the top, Washington has been reducing taxes on the wealthy, expanding tax loopholes that disproportionately benefit the rich, deregulating Wall Street, and providing ever larger subsidies, bailouts, and tax breaks for large corporations. Big money has now all but engulfed Washington and many state capitals — drowning out the voices of average Americans, filling the campaign chests of candidates who will do their bidding, financing attacks on organized labor, and bankrolling a vast empire of right-wing think-tanks and publicists that fill the airwaves with half-truths and distortions. Unequal political power is the endgame of widening inequality — its most noxious and insidious consequence, its fundamental threat to our democracy.”

  3. Wake up, Canada. this is how it begins. you cannot have a nice, polite conversation with people who will poison your water, destroy your environment, and stab you in the back for personal gain. that is who the anti-science lobby is; it appears some of you just don’t know it yet. don’t be like the US, and allow these people to take over government agencies you all rely upon, even if you don’t know you do until the need arises.

  4. It is, of course, the Commander’s responsibility to speak on this. If only as a means of honoring the people who, with their commitment to using tax dollars to fund scientific research and endeavors, provided his training and paid his salary and by extension invested in his pension and have even provided his easy retirement. As Tim so rightly points out, without that commitment, Cmdr Hadfield would not have such a fulfilling life.

    Here’s the thing, he doesn’t have to be confrontational about it, just matter of fact. He could easily point out the things that government paid research has provided for the people of Canada. Talk about what has come from things he worked on. What supporting science has meant for the people. From big things like breakthroughs in medicine to small things like better mousetraps. And this isn’t just about the public, private enterprise has benefitted greatly from things discovered because governments funded space exploration – see Tempurpedic for one. And one of the biggest companies in the world wouldn’t be here today if the US government hadn’t laid the ground work for it – see Google.

    If those that owe it the most do not make it clear how much they do owe to the government support of the scientific community there is no educated fact based conversation about this issue And without that type of conversation there can be no real choice of “priorities”. If only one side is saying anything, and most of what they are saying are misrepresentations of history and accounting and frankly the influence of the private sector on such things that means we have marketing, propaganda and snake oil not conversation.

    Do not be stupid, Canada, we have eaten the seed corn in America and will be seeing the destruction this has done to our scientific and economic community for decades to come even if we correct course. chidy is right. Do not follow our lead on this.

  5. Chris Hadfield is not a scientist; he is an engineer, a pilot, and a military officer. He doesn’t have a PhD, and is not any more qualified as an authority on science than was Neil Armstrong or any of the other fighter pilots who became astronauts by virtue of their military commissions.

    US astronauts are public heroes and celebrities who spend much of their time on tour. There are more first-string NBA players than there are astronauts. Retired US astronauts who have been scientists sometimes act as public advocates for science, but in general retired astronauts tend to advocate more for continuance of the astronaut program and more generous appropriations for manned space flight.

    In the year 2014, placing primates into orbit and returning them to the surface is mature enough technology that it is now being marketed as tourism. In a way, the awesome expensiveness of manned space flight makes it actually antiscientific in that it absorbs billions of dollars that could be spent doing better science.

    As an engineer within a few months of being Hadfield’s age who lives near a NASA facility and has worked there, I can tell you that there are truly loony engineers running around with profoundly antiscientific attitudes. You have seen for yourself if you have studied or watched NASA history some of the nut cases who get to be astronauts. While I have no grounds to believe that Hadfield is one of those nut cases, it’s not hard for me to understand why he might not want to be enlisted into a pro-scientific political cause when he is not really a scientist.

    1. Exactly my thinking. I met Chris Hadfield years ago just after he had been accepted into the NASA astronaut program when the professional engineers of Nova Scotia brought him to town.
      He is quite different now than when I first met him. Rather like another “famous” Canadian, Justin Bieber, that fame and experience of being in space has taken a mental toll on him, I would say.
      And he is not a “scientist”. His background is in the military and applied science. Certainly not environmental science. I hear you-NASA astronauts and engineers are quite the “characters”!
      And I DON’T mean that as a compliment! Its all about them staying “on-message” to keep scamming the congress and keep the money coming! Must be nice to live large on the American taxpayer! I find all this space travel-faith in the future nonsense tiresome and boring now. And so 1960’s!!

  6. Bill, Alain and Proprietor, I’m with you guys.

    I am deeply concerned by what is happening in Canada vis a vis ongoing federal budget cuts to science research and education initiatives, not to mention the muzzling of government scientists on issues of critical importance to us all.

    Dramatic cutbacks to science-based government departments, the changes to environmental legislation and regulations and the government’s systematic refocusing of efforts on commercially “lucrative” areas of science are very disturbing.

    That more Canadians are not at the very least alarmed by what is happening disgusts me. Their silence is deafening. Last week’s ‘Silence of the Labs’ episode that aired on CBC’s The Fifth Estate should have been required viewing for every one of us. What is happening in this country is chilling.

    That having been said, I don’t think that Chris Hadfield can or should be expected to become a political activist to this cause, and I don’t think it would make a difference if he did. He has done us all a huge favour by sharing his passion for science and space exploration, likely influencing a whole new generation of scientists in the process.

    Expecting that his voice will make a difference is, in my humble opinion, naive. And I can’t say it any better than Bill..

    “To sum up: Chris Hadfield makes science fun. And that’s a better way to change people’s minds than ranting and raving in the news.”

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