By David Keith

The Bruce Carson trial grabbed headlines with charges of influence peddling by one of Prime Minister Harper’s closest former advisers. It is a juicy tale, but the real scandal is that Carson was one of a group of players from the government and the energy business who worked to muzzle a debate about energy and climate change that was — and is — vital to our economic future.

Canada has an opportunity to lead the world in tackling critical policy questions at the interface of climate science and energy, but the Carson case is a sobering reminder that such leadership depends on academic institutions that can deliver policy-relevant analysis that is independent from government. Sadly, in this instance, university administrators fell asleep at the switch.

I know because I was there. In the spring of 2004, University of Calgary President Harvey Weingarten recruited me back to Canada to help build a top-notch research centre that would inform the hard energy choices faced by Alberta, Canada, and the larger world.

In September 2006, I travelled to Ottawa with Weingarten to showcase our efforts and help raise funds. We met with Carson, who was seen as the prime minister’s go-to guy for climate policy, an increasingly hot topic as the Kyoto accord gained visibility. My impression of Carson then and in succeeding months was of a gruff lawyer keen to cut through the spin and craft a middle-ground deal on climate policy.

The government soon gave $15 million to Alberta’s universities to create the “Canada School for Energy and Environment.” And when it came to choose an executive director, the university’s appointed — you guessed it — Carson. I assumed Carson would take his new mandate seriously and we could maintain an independent, university-based centre that could serve as a neutral convening ground for a wide variety of perspectives from the oilpatch to environmental advocates.

I was wrong.

Not merely about Carson, but about the ability of Canadian universities to maintain their independence in the face of government pressure. It soon became clear that Carson was simply using his academic post to further the interests of the conservative government and a narrow segment of the energy industry. Documents released by the RCMP contain emails and interviews making it unequivocally clear that Carson worked closely with industry leaders to produce meetings and reports that had the patina of stakeholder representation, while in fact aiming to avoid meaningful public debate.

Leaders of Alberta’s universities did nothing substantive to manage the problem until Carson’s scandal forced their hands. Even then, they failed to act decisively to ensure that public money was used for research that supported broad public interests.

I love Calgary and would have stayed in Canada if I could, but I felt compelled to leave when it was clear that the university had lost its commitment to build a serous research effort at the intersection of energy technology and public policy.

A successful academic think-tank must balance competing perspectives. Its analytical work must confront the nonsense on all sides with data-driven analysis, while its convening power should be used to gather warring parties in forums where off-the-record conversation can help lubricate political compromise. Working at Carnegie Mellon and now at Harvard, I have seen this model work well south of the border. We need a made-in-Canada version.

This is a national problem. Over decades, Canadian governments have emasculated or killed institutions that gave independent advice on science and technology so that they are now among the weakest in the G7. Federal and provincial governments increasingly demand that research funding be tied to matching money from industry, so work that threatens industry’s interests does not get funded. It’s a good idea to tie some applied work in engineering to industrial interests, but this requirement must not apply to policy analysis.

Particularly under this government, funding decisions have been increasingly politicized, making the credibility of university research a coin for hire. We needed to get to the Prime Minister’s Office to get funded, and that funding came with political control.

Fixing the problem will require a broad commitment to safeguard independent policy-oriented research.

Canada faces hard choices. There is no easy way to cut emissions and grow the economy. The Carson trial reminds us that we lost an Alberta-based think-tank that might have fostered the debate we needed have had during the boom years, a debate we need today to help navigate the energy-environment rapids without sinking our kids’ futures.

Original post on The Toronto Star

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