Opinion: Canadian Science Under Attack

Government policies are shuttering research facilities while muzzling federal researchers by dissuading them from talking to the press, participating in international collaborations, or publishing their work.

By | April 2, 2013

IMAGE COURTESY OF WWW.SCIENCEUNCENSORED.CACanadian government science is under siege. The administration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper—first under the guise of creating a uniform message across the government, and more recently with the stated intent of controlling intellectual property and cost-saving—is dismantling the Canadian governmental science apparatus and its role in providing a source of accountability in Canadian democracy.

This erosion began in 2007 with the imposition of rules requiring that all public servants (including government scientists) get approval before speaking in public or to a journalist on any topic. These rules were rolled back for routine queries about the weather, but other than that, scientists were to check with media relations or communications officers before any public contact.

Of course, this in isolation is not a problem, except that the government made sure that such requests, particularly for potentially sensitive research (e.g. about the impacts of climate change), were met with slow bureaucracy, responses taking days or weeks, by which time the news cycle would have moved on.

Even more insidious, some approvals came with pre-determined talking points, boring bullets beyond which scientists were not to stray. With so much red tape over their mouths, it was unclear what the point of talking to government scientists was. Journalists certainly weren’t able to ask what might have motivated research, what the implications of the research might be, or where research might be headed in the future. Without journalists talking directly and openly to scientists, all the subtle details, the judgments or interesting extras that don’t make it into scientific papers, remain obscured.

Some politicians defending these policies argue that the only thing scientists need to do is publish their research, that access beyond the scholarly literature is unnecessary.

But this ignores both the additional questions journalists can ask scientists and the need for such communication in the media to bring research to the attention of the public—a public that, by the way, pays for the research.

More recently, though, even the freedom to publish is being undermined. Despite denials by officials, there is evidence that Canadian government scientists are being required to get approval before submitting papers for publication—and that approval is as much about political ideology as about evidential soundness. An American scientist was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement in order to continue working with Canadian scientists (on Arctic issues) and, understandably outraged, refused, releasing the details of the new rules. An official claimed the change in policy was to protect Canadian “intellectual property.”

Public service scientists should not tolerate controls on their intellectual property that limit the public’s access to research the public funds. Perhaps the outrage of non-Canadian scientists is precisely what administration officials are seeking, as Canadian government scientists will find themselves in fewer collaborations with non-Canadians as a result, further weakening Canadian science.

Finally, it appears as though the Harper administration is doing its best to close research facilities and programs—many of which focus on environmental impacts and monitoring—that produce unwelcome scientific results to those concerned only with development.

While the administration might claim that these closures are about saving taxpayer dollars, a closer look reveals something else. For example, the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in northern Ontario costs the government CAD $2 million per year to run, mostly in salaries for off-site scientists who analyze data from the remote research station. Even though the government is shuttering the 45-year-old ELA, it must continue to pay these researchers’ salaries at least in the near term as they are unionized. In addition, the ELA carries with it about $20-$50 million in clean-up liability because some of the experiments there involved purposely polluting lakes to track the ecological effects.  Decommissioning the site would thus be more expensive than keeping it open from a purely economic perspective, irrespective of its use as a world class research facility. It seems the government would rather not know the effects of silver nanoparticles on fresh water systems, would rather not know how long it takes aquatic systems to recover from mercury contamination, would rather not know the effects of warming waters on trout populations to such an extent it is willing to take an economic hit to suppress the research, some of which has already been funded by other agencies.

Canada is providing an object lesson in how to foster ignorance for political purposes in three easy steps: 1) Keep your scientists away from journalists so that access to the public diminishes; 2) Suppress the scientists’ ability to collaborate and publish their work; and finally 3) Dismantle the laboratories that support research producing unwelcome results.

Politicians promise us many things, but we need someone to measure whether they are delivering them and whether there are any undesired side-effects of their policies. This is one of science’s main jobs in contemporary democratic societies. Industry certainly will not fund the kind of environmental monitoring being undermined here, nor can university scientists be tasked with the kind of large scale assessments across decades that provide the best data. Government scientists in government labs, serving the public interest, are ideally situated to fulfill this purpose.

At least, they would be if they were allowed to freely speak to the public about their research, to freely publish their results, and to serve the public interest, rather than the interest of the particular administration under which they work. Without science of this kind, politicians could tell us whatever they want about the impacts of their policies. Who would be able to challenge them? Current Canadian policies are not just an assault on science, but an assault on democracy.

Heather Douglas is the Waterloo Chair in Science and Society in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. She has published numerous articles and a book, Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009) on her area of research, which focuses on the science policy interface.

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Avatar of: Howard A, Doughty

Howard A, Doughty

Posts: 11

April 3, 2013

The current Government of Canada is led by a man who once called Global Warming a hoax and part of a nefarious socialist plot to destroy capitalism. He is backed by a significant group of "creationists" who deny biological evolution. His close associates, especially in the fossil fuels industries, oppose all science that does not conform to their corporate agenda.

He campaigned for office and won prime ministerial authority with 39% of the popular vote (only because the 61% who voted against him were split among four other parties) on a platform of government transparency and accountability. He has delivered on neither and, in fact, is now witnessing charges being laid against one of its key operatives for illegal activities related to voter suppression.

Stephen Harper is a cunning politician, but his behaviour in office and out shows him to be a man of no principles other than those which contribute to his personal and political success. 

It is rumoured that he will either decline to run for election again or will run and then resign (in the manner of Sarah Palin) part way through his next term. I would lile him to run and be overwhelmingly defeated; however, in any case, there are surely a large number of appointments to corporate boards and other "goodies" awaiting him, no matter what his electoral fate in 2015.

Sensible scientists (except, perhaps, for those already working in the oil industry) will applaud his withdrawal from public office, but it will take a very long time for scientific research to recover in Canada.

 

Avatar of: LeeH

LeeH

Posts: 29

April 3, 2013

Muzzling research and discussion is a disturbing and damaging trend in multiple areas of the Canadian government under current leadership.  It's not just that science is under attack, but that freedom of expression is being suppressed for political and, perhaps, personal gain.

Avatar of: tedr

tedr

Posts: 1

April 3, 2013

To add evidence to an already well documented piece, see this recent report from the CBC

http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2013/04/03/sk-saskatoon-scientist-discusses-muzzling-concerns-1402.html

Avatar of: FrancisBacon

FrancisBacon

Posts: 3

April 4, 2013

I presume that you, Howard A Doughty, mean anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

 

Like you (I am sure), I am deeply concerned about the unsustainably heavy human footprint on the environment, our relentless exploitation of limited resources for agriculture and settlement, and mining for energy and materials. I presume, I am sure correctly, that these same concerns motivate to greater or lesser extent people like yourself and Heather E Douglas, and that this is one cogent reason why you and others agitate for research action on AGW in Canada and internationally. 

However, one does not need a higher degree in science to see that the IPCC-predicted relationship between CO2 and temperature has not been confirmed empirically. Taken together with the knowledge that our Earth has often been hotter when CO2 was lower or cooler when CO2 was higher and one can deduce that it is all a bit more complicated. On this point, even James Hansen the father of anthropogenic climate warming alarm admits that temperature goes up before atmospheric carbon dioxide rises. Any causality is back-to-front!

Repetition or inference of the oft-made nonsense assertion that there is scientific consensus about the cause of global warming, does not make the hypothesis true, which is why the direction of environmental research should be altered even if it means that your jobs are lost or changed.

 

Avatar of: Jim Reeve

Jim Reeve

Posts: 1

April 8, 2013

 

    I read this link and the comments under it. The comments fell into the same old polarized argument over Global Warming, which really acts as a non-sequitur. Neither side in this oft repeated argument is adhering to the appropriate methodology. This is why I often butt into those arguments and simply write, “Move uphill you dingbats.” Fake science is much more wide spread than just the Federal Conservatives denial of Global Warming.

    The public is bombarded by a maelstrom of unscience from many source entities with diverse agendas. Also the “Documentary Industry” produces Docutainment because more of the public will sit and watch it. How many would watch a math professor explaining how to do risk calculations? The TV buys the documentaries that more people will watch so they can sell more products. I must add that there are some good and a few very good documentaries on TV. And then you have the science journalists. Most of them couldn’t pass grade 11 sciences. The Newspapers and Television News are full of terribly flawed science and technical information.

    I have even found that fake science is being taught at UBC.  I went to a lecture given by a professor of Earth Sciences from UBC and found that he was teaching crap commercial science. He spent most of his lecture putting down the “precautionary principle.” I cornered him after and did my best to engage him in proper scientific debate. To his credit, he realized that he was required, by the rules of scientific debate, to debate whenever challenged. So I proceeded to rip his lecture to shreds. (No ego here.)

   My argument went like this: Your students are geotechnical engineers, foresters and geophysicists who will work in the mining and oil industries. Hence you are teaching engineering not pure science. Therefor you should be teaching in the engineering method and the engineering method is full of the “precautionary principle.” Then I gave him about eight examples. (. . . triple redundancy in critical systems . . .).

   My final point is that the fake science has even spread into the universities.   

Avatar of: Geo-Guy

Geo-Guy

Posts: 1

April 15, 2013

Personally I do not really see much of a problem with the new policy - if someone is asked to speak at a conference, that request is invariably a year ahead of the event - plenty of time to receive approval;

As for being interviewed on a particular subject, if you worked anywhere else you would be faced with a similar restriction: companies and associations have their spokes people whose job is to answer questions from the media. Nowhere do I know of a situation where anyone can step forward and speak freely on an issue as a representative of that company - it doesn't make sense to allow; it doesn't happen.

The issue is really one of timing - in the past perhaps scientists were able to speak freely or publish new findings without their employer knowing or providing approval. Now permission is required but the process to receive that permission needs to start earlier.

Unfortunately this has been presented as a freedom of speech issue when in fact the status quo was enabling scientists to further their career at the expense of the taxpayer - not something that is acceptable. After all publishing research is what moves a scientist's career upwards and improves a scientist's reputation within the community so any policy that may have a negative impact on those benefits will of course be protested. If scientists want their protests to be valid, then they have to come clean and present the entire picture.

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