One order of Government policy, hold the science

Emperor

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s scientists that have shown that the emperor has no clothes. A recent U of T study has shown that Government justification for new environmental legislation is unfounded.

In a recent post, I discussed a paper by Jake Rice (DFO scientist) that outlined the role of science in contributing to government policy. In it, he warns of the risks of making policy that ignores science advice. The details are in the post, but the basic idea is that if you want to form policy that ignores science, expect to be called out on it.

That’s exactly what’s happened this week in a paper published by researchers from the University of Toronto. But first, some back story for context.

When the government released sweeping changes to environmental legislation in bill C-38 last year, particularly, changes to the Fisheries Act and totally re-writing the Environmental Assessment Act, the excuse used to do so was that environmental reviews took too long- so long that investors were frustrated with the process and choosing to seek development elsewhere. Government ministers, like Joe Oliver, spoke at length to give this impression– environmental reviews were lengthy and cumbersome. To quote ol’ Joe, from a development approval announcement in 2011:

“I think the regulatory process should be completed within a reasonable amount of time and that time should be a couple of years.” – Joe Oliver, Federal Minister of Natural Resources

The quote appeared relevant for the particular announcement, which had taken quite a bit longer (6 years in that particular case). However, the way the “need” for a change in the approval process was being sold was that this was the norm- why would anyone invest if it takes 6 years to approve a project? Industry complaints repeated frequently in the media that the approval process was too lengthy helped solidify the impression- environmental review was slow and cumbersome, and limiting investment. And, the government presented their own “data” on the topic- see the handful of anecdotal examples presented on page 89 of this document and in this committee report.

What wasn’t clear at the time was that these were just “impressions”- no one had actually measured how long environmental reviews actually took; that is, look at all the data on time to review and ask what the actual time to approval was. Instead, the government took industry’s word for it, and, based on a few examples, completely overhauled environmental legislation across the board, with the goal of reducing environmental review times to between 1-2 years.

In their recent study, Dak de Kerckhove, a PhD candidate in U of T’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, along with faculty members Dr. Brian Shuter and Dr. Ken Minns (a retired DFO scientist) demonstrated from a review of actual data on environmental reviews between 2001 and 2011 found that:

“The majority of submissions were processed within 1 year for mitigated impacts and within 2 years for authorized impacts.”

Exactly the targets that ol’ Joe said the changes were supposed to put in place.

To review: the Canadian government made sweeping changes to environmental legislation based on industry complaints (not a scientific examination of the data), in order to set targets for review times that it was already meeting under the old legislation.

That’s what you get when you base policy on impressions instead of evidence.

Further, the authors provide some evidence that these times were shorter than similar reviews in the US, which take between 3-8 years (though the authors are quick to point out that data with which to compare are sparse). They then go on to make some recommendations for how to streamline the process without weakening environmental oversight.

To conclude, the authors make two key statements:

1. “Inordinately long review times may be a misperception based on a minority of cases, and thus the recent environmental policy changes in Canada may have little effect on the pace of economic growth.”

And,

2. “While our study provides the first estimate of review times with publically available data, we encourage the federal government to refine our estimate with the more detailed information of individual referrals at their disposal and use a strong evidence-based approach when designing federal environmental policy.”

What else can I say when they’ve already said it all.

I invite you to read the paper yourself (it’s open access, just click on the .pdf link) and check out the press release. You can also hear the U of T student speak for himself on CBC’s “As It Happens”, broadcast April 3rd 2013.

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3 thoughts on “One order of Government policy, hold the science

  1. Thanks for drawing attention to this study. Totally undercuts Harper and Oliver and the rest of this one-note Conservative government of neoliberals — makes them look arrogant, wrong-headed, and totally foolish. Your choice of artwork to accompany your entry is priceless!

  2. I wanted to draw attention to two timely commentaries that relate directly to the anti-science agenda of the Harper Conservatives. The first is an opinion piece from earlier this month in the electronic publication “The Scientist” by Dr. Heather Douglas (Waterloo Chair in Science and Society in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo) entitled, “Canadian Science Under Attack”. You can find it at:

    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/34958/title/Opinion–Canadian-Science-Under-Attack/

    The second appeared in the March 2013 issue of Scientic American, in the regular commentary contribution “Skeptic”, by Michael Shermer (publisher of “Skeptic” magazine — http://www.skeptic.com). The print version had the title “Dictators and Diehards: Pluralistic ignorance and the last best hope on Earth”; it is available on line, with the revised title: “How Skeptics Can Break the Cycle of False Beliefs: Pluralistic ignorance and the last best hope on Earth”. It’s worth the read. While Harper’s anti-science efforts are not mentioned, the “pluralistic ignorance” about which Shermer writes is exactly what the Harper Conservatives are banking on — that the Canadian electorate will not appreciate the link between scientific evidence and informed policy, and will not speak out against the diminution of Canadian public science, leaving the Tories free to create policy that is decoupled from any scientific basis. Interestingly, the artwork accompanying Shermer’s piece is also a version of the “The Emperor’s New Clothes” — Shermer’s commentary is available at:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-skeptics-break-the-cycle-of-false-beliefs#comments

    • Thanks Ian- I’d seen the piece by Heather Douglas, but not the one by Michael Shermer. Both are well worth the read. Thanks for providing the links.

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