Science in Canada is in a bad state — government scientists muzzled, science library books chucked in the dumpster, long-running experiments abruptly defunded, and painfully more — yet this photograph is the thing that spawns a parliamentary query.
This rogue logo is now the subject of a parliamentary query. Image credit: NASA, modified by CSA
This photograph of an astronaut on the Canadarm set against the Earth in space has spawned a parliamentary query due to its implausibly visible logo. Of all the other very real and troubling problems facing government-funded science in Canada, this is the thing that apparently matters most.
A similar unmodified photograph as it appears on the official Canadian Space Agency website. A spot-the-differences comparison reveals slightly different perspectives and colour enhancements along with the missing logo. Image credit: NASA
The photo was altered to make the logo visible from a position and angle that doesn't match up with reality, and was briefly posted on the Canadian Space Agency's Tumblr site (since removed). It was the topic of a weirdly intense The Economist article by Kenneth Cukier, where apparently this minor photographic manipulation is a deliberate, calculated sin:
Of course, countries have long fiddled with photographs to present an image of grandeur. But the tactic of fairly ham-fisted airbrushing used here seems more reminiscent of North Korean propaganda posters than of Western democracies' typical PR efforts.
Unsurprisingly, the space agency's response was to explain it was a mistaken publication of an internal-use-only photograph to celebrate the Canadarm's 5th birthday, remove the photo, apologize, and get on with training astronauts, designing self-repairing space robots, and other more interesting tasks. They rather politely don't point out the The Economist article credits the image to a Canadian astronaut who has never flown in space.
Everyone has their own tetchy topics, the ideas they are absolutely adamant about even if in the greater scale of things it's no big deal. (For the record: landslides fail, Yellowstone isn't erupting yet, and Jem deserves better.) I get why Cukier is in a snit over unlabelled photographic manipulation being a nasty way of fuzzing up the historic record even if I find the way he presented his argument overblown and melodramatic. If this was the whole story, I might debate how considering the very real threat paint chips pose to spacecraft, the scientifically responsible thing would be to ban all logos and insist that all photographs be manipulated to retractively insert logos. But no, it gets worse.
Where this turns into a moment of sigh-inducing, eye-rolling frustration at the histrionics is when Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux stepped in to address this as a major issue worthy of investigation by filing a written parliamentary query. The query reads:
With regard to the Canadian Space Agency:
(a) Why was the photograph of Canadarm 2, previously posted to the Agency's Tumblr accounts [...] modified to add the Canada wordmark;
(b) Who made these modifications to the photograph;
(c) Who requested or directed that the modifications be made;
(d) When was that request or direction issued;
(e) Why was the Tumblr posting removed;
(f) Who removed the Tumblr posting;
(g) Who requested or directed that the Tumblr posting be removed;
(h) Why was that request or direction issued?
Now the government has 45 days to respond. Admittedly, the Question Period is more about theatrics than about actually seeking answers to questions, but it's pretty hard to see how this can be the linchpin of some "Gotcha!" moment. The answers will inevitably be excessively dull: "To celebrate the Canadarm's 5th birthday; by some junior scientist or casual employee; no one; 2006; because it was a mistake; the social media minion; no one; because it was a mistake."
If Lamoureaux is this concerned about science in Canada, can his next queries please focus on why is a decades-long unique ecological research project now dependent on crowd-funding, how come the government hasn't conducted a fault survey in the highest population density seismically active regions in Canada, and why is it a good idea to thread a pipeline through young, unstable mountains to reach a port surrounded by fjords and rogue waves? Or was this some sort of surrealist prank, embracing the utter ridiculousness of our capacity to manufacture outrage while failing to address real issues and concerns? Is Lamoureaux aiming to be the Colbert of Canadian politics after leaving office?
I'm sorry, Canada, but accidentally publishing an internal-only image or manipulating a photograph to slap on a logo just doesn't rank high on the lists of things that are worrisome about your science policy right now.