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It has been a difficult few years for the curators of knowledge in Canada. While the scientific community is still reeling from the loss of seven of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ eleven libraries, news has broken that scientists with Health Canada were left scrambling for resources after the outsourcing and then closure of their main library.
In January CBC news uncovered a report from a consultant hired by the federal government cataloguing mistakes in the government’s handling of the closure. “Staff requests have dropped 90 per cent over in-house service levels prior to the outsource. This statistic has been heralded as a cost savings by senior HC [Health Canada] management,” the report said.
“However, HC scientists have repeatedly said during the interview process that the decrease is because the information has become inaccessible — either it cannot arrive in due time, or it is unaffordable due to the fee structure in place.”
Government spokespeople dismissed the report, saying it was “returned to its author for corrections, which were never undertaken.”
The consultancy company fired back through a letter from its lawyer. “Representations that our client provided a factually inaccurate report and then neglected to respond to requests for changes are untrue,” it read.
However, Health Canada and the DFO are not the only government bodies to lose access to vital archival material in the past two years. Postmedia reports more than twelve departments losing libraries due to the Harper government’s budget cuts, including the Canada Revenue Agency, Citizenship and Immigration, Employment and Social Development Canada, Environment Canada, Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Natural Resources Canada, Parks Canada, the Public Service Commission, Public Works and Government Services, and Transport Canada.
Many of these departments lost multiple libraries, with historical records and books disappearing from shelves, scattered across private collections or tossed in dumpsters. In 2013 even the country’s main home for historic documents, Library and Archives Canada, faced major cuts to service, including hours, interlibrary loans and staffing.
This unprecedented process has triggered concerns about the loss of physical documents and imperfections in the digitization process. A recent report from the Canadian Libaries Association (CLA) expresses these fears in no uncertain terms.
“Currently in Canada the vast majority of research data is at risk of being lost because it is not being systematically managed and preserved. While certain disciplines and research projects have institutional, national, or international support for data management, this support is available for a minority of researchers only. A coordinated and national approach to managing research data in Canada is required in order to derive greater and longer term benefits, both socially and economically, from the extensive public investments that are made in research.”
But equally as worrisome is the loss of the librarians themselves, some of whom have spent decades familiarizing themselves with the extremely specialized materials in their collections.
Anyone who has written an undergraduate research paper knows how maddening it can be to dig through online databases for a single piece of information. The same is true for high level researchers, according to Jeff Mason, past president of the Canadian Health Libraries Association (CHLA/ABSC).
Mason is a librarian at a hospital in Saskatchewan with firsthand experience of working with health professionals. “Much as you would think a doctor would be an expert at treatment and diagnoses, when it comes to information in the health field, librarians are key resources,” he told DeSmog Canada by phone a day after learning of the Health Canada main library’s closure.
“I was shocked to hear that the Health Canada library had been closed because we thought it was safe as an organization,” says Mason.
In a field as specialized as medical research, having a librarian who is familiar with the material is integral to success.
“Unless you really know what you’re doing and spend all day everyday searching for information, these databases, or the internet, can be impossible,” Mason says. “Unless you spend all your times with your hands in it, you can’t really ever be sure that you’ve found everything that’s out there.”
A librarian’s relationship to a collection makes them able to help researchers and physicians alike find necessary information with speed and efficiency. They can aid researchers in formulating questions and narrowing fields of inquiry, streamlining the process of both digital and hard copy searches. “We tell our clients in our hospital if they spent more than 10 minutes looking for something, then they should have come to us,” he says.
With budget cuts and library closures, collections are being shunted to academic libraries that are simply not capable of maintaining the level of service of the original institutions.
“They’re short-staffed and they don’t have enough funds to do what they’re supposed to do,” says Mason. “Now they’re being contacted by government researchers and not-for-profits that used to get their information through the government of Canada.”
Head of collections David Sharp and gift specialist Colin Harness from Carleton University have released a stunning graphic detailing their institution’s efforts to “rescue” collections.
In 2012 and 2013 Carleton University engaged with 21 different government libraries. They were able to help fourteen libraries, finding homes for 500 rare items from Fisheries and Oceans Canada only, either by taking in their collections or connecting them with resources. Eight of those collections were either dispersed elsewhere or have an unknown status. One collection, from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, was declined because of “staff and space resource concerns.”
But even if the materials find a safe home either on a physical shelf or in a database, librarians, Mason believes, are still “integral to sound science and sound policy.”
Their loss is “really devastating to the state of science and knowledge in our country.”
The January report by the CLA corroborates Mason’s opinion. “Research libraries are essential institutions in developing and managing data repositories,” it reads. “Libraries and librarians have the expertise in resource description, storage, and access.”
Dr. Katie Gibbs speaks at a Stand Up for Science rally at Parliament Hill in Ottowa last September. (Evidence for Democracy / Kevin O’Donnell)
Seven of Canada’s most prized scientific libraries are being shut down and some of their contents have already been burned, thrown away or carted off by fossil fuel consultancy firms. This development is part of a Harper administration plan to slash more than $160 million in the coming years from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, or DFO — an agency charged with protecting the country’s vast waterways.
The Harper government has portrayed the move as necessary in order to reduce the country’s deficit and provide Canadians with greater access to scientific information through the Internet. But alongside the cuts, the Harper administration has doled out billions in subsidies to the fossil fuel-dominated energy sector — $26 billion in 2011, according to a recent International Monetary Fund report. As for accessing the information at the shuttered libraries, an internal DFO document labeled “secret” obtained by Postmedia News in late December, along with the scientists who utilize the research facilities, tell a different story.
The once-secret DFO document speaks of “culling” materials in the libraries, a term that critics believe to be far more devastating than it sounds. Much like its original meaning — the killing of animals with undesired genetic traits — they see the budget cuts as a way to do away with undesirable science.
“The Harper government is not simply influenced by the fossil fuel industry, it isthe fossil fuel industry,” said Brad Hornick, a lead organizer with of the Vancouver Ecosocialist Group.
The Harper administration has long been known for its anti-environment stance. Harper’s environment minister, for instance, has publicly cast doubt on research documenting Arctic sea ice melt. Observers have also complained of a revolving door between the government and industry that has effectively placed Canada’s natural resources at the disposal of fossil fuel corporations supporting hydraulic fracturing, carbon-rich tar sands extraction and pipeline projects. In the process, a host of conservation laws and sovereignty treaties with Canada’s First Nations population have been unwound at the behest of oil and gas lobby groups. The Center for Global Development ranks Canada last among wealthy nations in terms of environmental protection.
Meanwhile, 2,000 government scientists have been fired over the past five years and hundreds of environmental programs that monitor food, water and air quality, study and prevent oil spills, as well as track atmospheric changes have been shut down for lack of funds.
Dr. Katie Gibbs with Evidence for Democracy, a grassroots organization composed of scientists mobilizing against the culling, said it is only the latest development in a “long trend.”
“Over the past few years we’ve seen huge cuts in funding for science, layoffs for scientists who work for the government and reduced funding for academic scientists,” Gibbs said. “Some are calling it a war on science.”
British Columbia’s independent online news magazine The Tyee detailed the scope of the latest assault, citing several research hubs where scientific literature has been trashed, burned or picked apart. According to The Tyee, they include, “[The] Maurice-Lamontagne Institute, which housed 61,000 French language documents on Quebec’s waterways, as well as the newly renovated $62-million library serving the historic St. Andrews Biological Station in St. Andrews, New Brunswick.” Also shut down, were “the famous Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg and one of the world’s finest ocean collections at the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland.”
In a fitting addendum to this assault on science, the magazine noted that Rachel Carson — a founder of the modern environmental movement — corresponded with researchers at St. Andrews while writing her pioneering book on environmental contamination, Silent Spring, half a century ago.
According to Gibbs, whose group is circulating a petition against the cuts, “There’s no way this information was digitized. Many scientists have spoken out and said that everything is being done in a huge rush, completely disorganized. Private companies came and picked up truck loads of this material. They saw the value in it.”
The gas and dam powered-utility, Manitoba Hydro, plus North/South Consultants — a firm that counts oil and gas corporations among its clients in the heavily-frackedManitoba province — obtained troves of research documents pertaining to water treatment and aquatic habitats from Winnipeg’s Freshwater Institute. Scientists have also reported witnessing the incineration of literature at DFO libraries and one researcher at the Maurice Lamontagne Institute in Mont Joli, Quebec posted a photo online of a dumpster full of discarded books and journals. Although, scientists have done their best to salvage the research, more federal libraries are slated for culling.
Like the indigenous-led Idle No More movement and the climate activists who raised a sign that read “climate justice” over the prime minister’s head at a Vancouver Board of Trade meeting earlier this month, scientists are increasingly standing up to Harper, though doing so comes with great risk to their careers.
Last fall, Evidence for Democracy staged “Stand Up for Science” rallies in 17 Canadian cities against legal restrictions to their ability to share research and communicate with the public — one of the first steps in the so-called war on science taken by the Harper administration upon its ascent to power in 2006.
“The restrictions play into the library closures,” said Gibbs. “When scientists have spoken out they’ve had to do so anonymously because they fear for their jobs.”
According to critics of the Harper administration, such attacks on science are part of the prime minister’s small government, big business ideology, which assigns a negative value to any science that adversely impacts the production of fossil fuels.
“If you are going to be in favor of fossil fuel expansion, and tar sands in particular, and you are going to try to sell that to the Canadian public — part of doing that means dulling the awareness and importance of science,” said Rodger Annis, a Vancouver-based environmental activist and writer. “Science tells us in stark terms that if we want to prevent the very serious consequences of climate changethen we have to leave the tar sands in the ground.”
While the Harper administration may be able to dull, or even subvert the science behind such a message, it’s the scientists who are proving difficult to silence. And perhaps that’s just what’s needed. After all, science is only as strong as the scientists behind it.