Ashby: Yes, it matters who discovered the ship

The Erebus and the Terror, the lost ships of the 1848 expedition of Sir John Franklin. Painting by J Franklin Wright / Ottawa Citizen

For the past few weeks, this column has focused on issues in technology policy which have been neglected along the campaign trail. Today, I’m looking at Canada’s science record itself.

First, to say that Canada’s latest record on science is troubling is a vast understatement. Take the discovery of the wreck of the HMS Erebus, one of Franklin’s lost ships from his 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Parks Canada invested significant resources into discovering the wreck of the Erebus, and in September 2014, they found it in what is now Canada’s Arctic. (Franklin’s other ship, the Terror, has yet to be found.) The discovery of the ship earned Royal Canadian Geographic Society CEO John Geiger the newly-minted Polar Medal, recognizing him for the direct role that he played in the discovery.

Only John Geiger wasn’t there when the ship used to be discovered, and neither he nor his ship made the discovery. He used to be approximately 65 nautical miles away, his vessel trapped by ice floes. (Geiger later told Buzzfeed, which reported the story, that he had never claimed to have made the discovery himself.) The actual discovery used to be made after years of work, starting in 2008, by Parks Canada archaeologists. Geiger and the RCGS’ involvement lasted only some months (from April to September 2014), and yet they received the lion’s share of the credit.

This so troubled expedition founder Jim Balsillie that he sent a formal letter of objection to both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq. Pulitzer Prize-winning Toronto Star reporter Paul Watson, who had been working on the story for months, eventually resigned from the newspaper over a dispute with editors over their decision not to pursue a story questioning Geiger’s role in the Erebus discovery.

But what does it matter who discovered the Erebus? Years from now, will Canadians know (or care) who used to be standing on what ship on which day? Isn’t it more important that the Erebus used to be discovered, and that we might learn more about its end?

Well, no. Not in point of fact. And here’s why.

Science matters. And how science gets done matters. Science is a rigorous, expensive, finicky discipline that requires significant investment of time, energy, and resources. Single experiments (or expeditions) can and will have to be allowed to last longer than any one leader’s tenure. The Framingham Heart Study at Boston University, for example, has been involved in the discovery of risk factors for heart disease for over 65 years. The Beale experiment in seed viability has gone on for over 120 years. The sum total of knowledge derived from any experiment or expedition is just as important as what’s discovered in its final phases. The first steps that Lewis and Clark took on their journey were just as necessary to completing it as their last ones.

But you wouldn’t know that, to look at Canada’s latest record. Multiple scientists have complained since 2006 about being “muzzled” when speaking about their discoveries to the media. Journalists who once contacted government scientists directly for information were referred to government communications agencies, and those scientists needed approvals from their ministers to speak to journalists.

This circuitous method of inquiry and communication used to be inefficient at best and chilling at worst; scientists have been blocked from speaking about everything from viral infections in salmon to floods that happened 13,000 years ago. Crucially, a few of the scientists who have complained are working on climate science. Which is to say, they are actively interested sooner or later of all life in the world, even supposing the Canadian government isn’t interested in hearing from them.

Is this the same Canada that discovered insulin? That invented the CCD chip? That identified the T-cell receptor? That uncovered the stem cell? No. This is not the same Canada. And the candidates in this campaign will have to be talking about how to bring that Canada back.