Don’t silence Canadian science

Our contributor argues that the Harper government should listen to scientists, rather than muzzle them

Stand up for Science rally outside of Stauffer on Monday, September 16, one of several around the country.
Stand up for Science rally outside of Stauffer on Monday, September 16, one of several around the country.
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Raly Chakarova, MPA ’14

The Canadian standard of living is, in large part, the result of scientific discovery and technological innovation. Every Canadian has a vested interest in the well-being of public science, which directly affects our health, our environment and our economic development.

As such, every Canadian should be deeply troubled by the current federal government's abandonment of a commitment to the objective truth of basic science.

The Conservative government's impenitent and systematic assault on public science has crippled the ability of public research institutions to gather and interpret crucial data about the natural world.

This has been done in three main ways: funding cuts to important research institutions and programs; prioritizing applied science over basic science; and restricting scientists from discussing their research with colleagues and the public.

The long-form mandatory census was a critical source of information to understand the diverse circumstances of Canadians and was therefore essential to the effective formulation and evidence-based evaluation of both federal and provincial policies and programs, as well as private-sector activities.

Its replacement, a voluntary version, is already damaging the reliability of statistics, especially for those living in small towns and rural areas, and has resulted in Statistics Canada Chief Statistician Dr. Munir Sheikh's resignation. Dr. Sheikh resigned due to his opposition to the voluntary census, and now works as a fellow in the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s.

Funding cuts have closed the national contaminants program of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, responsible for monitoring and assessing pollution in Canada’s marine environments, and Environment Canada’s research and monitoring group, charged with working with and assessing industrial air pollution, among many others. Needless to say, undermining this type of research has negative implications, not only for Canada's environment and economy but also for the health and safety of Canadians.

While slashing funding for basic environmental and social science research, the government has maintained and even increased funding for industrial-academic partnerships. While this type of business-driven research is important for innovation and development, it can’t be made at the expense of basic science.

Industrial-academic partnerships mean that industry retains the intellectual property rights of the research with taxpayers covering all the costs. This raises a number of ethical issues, while dictating the future direction of graduate research and career opportunities for students.

Prioritizing industry-led research will transform our beloved country into a pariah state that values nature only as a natural resource and will further erode our global reputation for environmental stewardship.

Politics and ideology determining the direction of research is a troubling trend. Scientific evidence shouldn’t have a partisan agenda and should act to better inform policy decisions through open and transparent debate. That's why the free flow of information among scientists is fundamental to scientific progress and international cooperation.

The unfettered media access to those scientists is equally fundamental for Canadians to understand the potential implications for their lives.

The current practice of requiring vetting of scientific communications by public relations officers, for the purpose of ensuring consistency with the government’s message, slows and disrupts the free flow of information. The cases of environmental scientist David Tarasick; Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist Kristi Miller; and geoscientist Scott Dallimore, are but a few examples of government censorship.

Forbidding government employees from talking about the implications of their data publically is a new trend contrary to past Canadian practices. Furthermore, the Access to Information Act guarantees Canadians the right to access information in records under the control of government institutions, including the outcomes of tax-funded research, with few exceptions allowed.

After a request submitted by Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre earlier this year, the Information Commissioner has started investigating whether the government’s current policies on scientific communications are legal under the Access to Information Act.

To be democratic, effective and accountable, public policy has to be based on objective evidence and facts. The shift away from funding and considering all scientific evidence when making important policy decisions has compelled scientists and their supporters to march in the streets and voice their concerns.

Last summer, the Death of Evidence rally mourned the loss of scientific evidence in decision-making with a march on Parliament Hill. From that first of its kind event, Evidence for Democracy was born ― a new non-partisan organization advocating for the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making. It has been the driving force behind organizing Stand up for Science rallies in 17 cities across the country on Sept. 16, calling on the federal government to make a strong commitment to science in the public interest.

In Kingston, more than 200 people gathered in front of Stauffer Library to learn more about the issue and support our scientists. The great lineup of speakers included M.P. Ted Hsu, Queen's professors John Smol, Peter Hodson and Diane Beauchemin, who spoke passionately about their personal experiences.

What the Kingston rally (and those across the country) achieved was to continue the dialogue and raise awareness about these important issues. To reverse these troubling trends, the public has to be informed and engaged in order to stand with and support our scientists and keep our government accountable.

Public science must be accessible to the public and reinvesting in Canada’s science and research capacity must be a national priority.

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