Dec 242009

from Dec. 24th R-Town News: 

The University Needs Some Soul-Searching about Sustainability 

By Jim Harding

Can we learn about the challenge sustainability presents our universities, from the roles professors play in public policy?  On November 26th Uranium Development Partnership (UDP) member, physics Professor Mathie lectured as if he was presenting “the basic science going on in these discussions”. This wasn’t really true. Whether discussing radiation, fission, power generation, nuclear wastes or nuclear medicine, Mathie selected knowledge to give backing to his support for the nuclear industry. He did what philosophers of science call post-hoc rationalization, creating an intellectual foundation for opinions already held. This gets us in serious trouble. Mathie ruling out the cost of energy didn’t really dodge the “economic bullet”, as shown by Minister Boyd’s December 17th announcement that nuclear is too costly and inappropriate for our grid. And not seriously talking about environmental health doesn’t make us safer, for we don’t live in a make-believe world.


Discussing the build-up of nuclear wastes, Professor Mathie argued “it’s not because there’s no solution or no research.” Leave it to the expert, right? Yet the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is all industry-based with industry-appointed experts. And the federal review (1991-98) concluded Canadian’s don’t support deep geological storage, which the UDP and NWMO continue to promote. No mention that deep geological research has been stopped in Ontario and that both Quebec and Ontario ban nuclear wastes; or that centralized storage allowing future reprocessing of spent fuel makes plutonium more available for weapons. Or that President Obama just reaffirmed the US ban on reprocessing, a ban supported by the US Academy of Scientists, including its physicists.

Mathie lectured about “risks in life”. He reiterated that nearly one-half of us will get cancer and one-quarter of us will die from it. But this wasn’t a wake-up call to better understand how these risks accumulated to bring cancer from the 8th to 2nd cause of death. No, his risk philosophy was to get us to believe that there were relatively few additional risks from the nuclear industry when compared to overall cancer. Sounds reassuring, but this greatly oversimplifies the science of epidemiology and how health policy research should be done.  The smoking industry obscured its major role in lung cancer by financing studies that compared lung cancer among smokers with average cancer rates. Differences were found but they weren’t statistical enough, industry claimed, so they stalled public health intervention. This was fallacious because the average rates already included lung cancers among smokers. You need to compare the lung cancer rate of non-smokers to smokers, which showed cigarettes are the primary cause of lung cancer. 

Mathie doesn’t stand alone in his balancing act. The Chair of the UDP, Professor Florizone, also a physicist, wrote a piece for the Nov. 19th Star Phoenix entitled “Nuclear industry offers challenges and opportunities”. He wasn’t identified as the Financial VP of the University of Saskatchewan, which would be a major beneficiary if the UDP’s proposals go ahead. Rather, Florizone is identified as a “policy fellow at the John-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy”. Interestingly, the UDP that Florizone chaired said “Partnering with the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School …would help create relevant policy research and promote public discussion of nuclear-related issues” (p. 80-81). It all seems very incestuous. This School has already sponsored Florizone but to my knowledge hasn’t invited anyone outside the orbit of the nuclear industry. The UDP fully admits that “A close working relationship exists between Saskatchewan’s universities and industry”, and they want more. But there’s a cost, including for the quality of the education that the university provides. Blatant conflicts of interest such as we see with Professor Florizone will naturally increase with concentration of power.

Florizone’s opinion piece claims that “the nuclear option is cost competitive”, but then lists “capital costs” as one of the nuclear industry’s “challenges”. Yet he doesn’t mention that AECL’s recent proposal to the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) was three times the figure of $4.000 kW capacity he uses.  (The UDP used $3,850.) How can an academic sworn to a version of the Hippocratic Oath say this with a straight face?  As a Star Phoenix letter to the editor said, it is surprising “that a nuclear physicist working in finance should have taken so long to come to an awareness of this serious problem.”


Has either the government or the universities learned anything from this debacle? Perhaps the recent announcement about university involvement in Innovation Saskatchewan provides a hint. Minster Boyd announced the board would include two Deans from the universities, which might seem all right, except they are both from engineering.  The board includes the Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Mining Association (SMA) and CEO of the Calgary-based drilling company Total Energy Services Ltd. It sounds like the government wants academics to help industry expand uranium mining, oil and gas and perhaps tarsands in Saskatchewan. Apparently, here we go again!

What’s wrong with this picture? A narrow, instrumental relationship between the university and industry can never serve the greater public interest. Not only will the independence of the university be questioned but so, too, will the credibility of its education. The university has a higher purpose than colluding with government and industry to expand unsustainable economic growth, so it’s probably time to start asking fundamental questions about knowledge.  For centuries we’ve tried to understand ourselves and the world by breaking things down and taking them apart. While we’ve learned a lot of analytical knowledge from this, when we look at the effects of our narrow-minded applications (e.g. climate change) we soon realize we haven’t become wiser. Sustainability challenges us to be wiser; to put the pieces back together and to finally realize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Applying a compartmentalized view of the world may be of short-term value to industry but industry’s bottom line is not sustainability. If we are going to learn to do better, the university will have to help. It has some soul-searching to do while it still has a soul to save.

Jim Harding’s website –

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