Why I support Evidence for Democracy

I’m an ardent supporter of Evidence for Democracy (E4D), and sit on their Board of Directors. E4D is a non-partisan non-profit organization aiming to “support strong public policies built on the best available evidence for the health and prosperity of all Canadians.” I encourage you to check us out. 

Follow E4D on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date on issues concerning Canadian science policy. 

There are many aspects of Canada’s science policy motivating me to be involved with E4D. I’ve highlighted some of them here. I’m frustrated by the current Canadian government’s direct cuts to research grants, and to government-conducted science in the public interest. I’m concerned the ongoing muzzling of Canadian federal government scientists undermines our democracy and national policies. Lastly, the Harper government does not seem to value science, and research  (despite its lofty claims).

Graduate studies in physics become wrapped up in politics

Two years ago (2012), I experienced a political shock to my scientific life. I was excitedly conducting fieldwork at the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL). I was a relatively new graduate student at the time, and I was impressed by the work being conducted at the lab (topics include Arctic, climate, ozone, pollution, and atmospheric dynamics). PEARL is part of many national and international research networks which benefit immensely from its valuable location and sophisticated instrumentation. It was thrilling to be part of a great science team, and a privilege to experience a part of the country very few people visit. In fact, its salience was underscored during the previous year’s research campaign: the team had measured the formation of the first-ever (observed) Arctic ozone hole. This had happened regularly in Antarctica, but not in the Arctic. This development is not good news, and PEARL is the only Canadian ground facility situated far enough North and equipped to study such phenomena.

Adjusting a sun tracker on the roof of PEARL

Adjusting a sun tracker on the roof of PEARL

Half-way through our research campaign PEARL’s funding was cut. Once you lose a permanent installation like PEARL, situated in a dramatically isolated, challenging environment, it’s very difficult to get back. I couldn’t understand why. We didn’t cost much money, contributed to the public good, had an international reputation for excellent science, and the support and backing of multiple government agencies. I started the Save PEARL Facebook and Twitter accounts. 10 months later, we would get a reprieve – though with substantially scaled back operations. I’ve gone to international science meetings where people quietly wonder… what’s going on in Canada?

Cuts to Canadian research funding

PEARL was not an isolated case. Labs across the country, in a variety of fields, are being shut. Grants have been re-organized, cut, and restructured (for example, the NSERC Major Resources Support program was cut and not replaced. It provided operational funding for dozens of significant research facilities). Extensive lists of closures can be found elsewhere (e.g. CBC cuts summary, John Dupuis’s blog). What’s often striking is not only the significance of the work that is being cut. It’s the wasteful treatment of taxpayer investment. To take one example, the Kluane research facility was granted $2 million to renovate in 2012, based on five decades of excellent research and the government’s desire to bolster Canada’s northern infrastructure. A year later (2012), the government cut all funding from it. It’s not just a loss for Canadian science, it’s a waste of taxpayer investments in research infrastructure and expertise.

Cuts to government (public interest) science

It’s not just grants to University-based research that has undergone dramatic changes and cuts. Government science has suffered immensely. The DFO (now “Fisheries and Oceans Canada”) has had a great deal of cuts. $100 million at least. It no longer does marine mammal toxicology. Most people working in ocean pollution have lost their jobs. Famously, the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area was determined to be no longer within its mandate (Save ELA!). Environment Canada is suffering the same dramatic level of staff and research cuts. The Canadian Space Agency doesn’t have research scientists anymore! It seems the Canadian government is actively shedding its use of science in policy making. The world’s foremost scientific journal, Nature, expressed concern about Canada’s support for science.

Evidence for Democracy is working hard at the moment to develop an authoritative, interactive portal to information about this Canada-wide culling of scientific research capacity. Help us by volunteering or donating.

Libraries

Nature recently returned to the question of Canadian science policy when dramatic cuts to government science libraries splashed into the media. Indeed, government libraries have been cut substantially, affecting Health Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Environment Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada particularly. Access to materials important to the work of Canadian researchers has been undermined. The government has not been transparent about the criteria used to decide what materials it discarded and what materials it kept. Scientists have spoke out, arguing important records have not been systematically kept, and not all material appears available digitally. Some materials have even been thrown in the dumpster.

Federal scientists are rumoured to have even started to create informal libraries in their own homes, in order to preserve access to resources needed to do their jobs. This led to a hilarious (but sad) Rick Mercer sketch. It’s two minutes of fun, and hits an important point. Scientists in the federal government are being fired by the thousands. Those that remain are having their ability to work undermined.

Evidence for Democracy has a petition to Save our Science LIbraries.

Muzzling of Canadian government scientists

New strict controls limiting the ability for government scientists to speak to the public and media is another significant issue. 86% of Canadian federal scientists would face censure or retaliation for speaking about decisions that would harm the health and safety of Canadians, a recent survey revealed. Evidence and democracy are connected. If Canadian scientists *know* policies are damaging to the country, they should be required, not prevented, from expressing that point of view. Canadians should demand the right to be informed. Regrettably, the Harper government has changed the Code of Conduct for federal employees – demanding loyalty to the political government instead of to taxpaying Canadians. This is a fundamental shift away from government transparency, a dramatic twist of accountability, and a direct effort to undermine an informed and engaged public.

Nature published a column about the muzzling issue here.

Evidence for Democracy has a website and petition about the censorship of Canadian scientists. Check out Science: Uncensored.

While attending the Canadian Science Policy Conference this past November, I had the opportunity to chat with Deputy Minister of Industry Canada, John Knubley. I asked him about the survey and the issue of muzzling. He said much of the issue was a misunderstanding, but that part of it was a difference in values between the political government and the rest. He was guarded in talking about it. But the difference in “values” rings true.

Canadian science policy

The values driving this government’s policies are not in line with Canadian values as I see them. I value a well-informed public. I value evidence-informed public policy. I want a long-term vision for Canadian prosperity supported by investment in basic research and balanced with environmental protection.

The government is currently re-examining its science and technology policy. However, there is no indication substantial changes will occur. Among the most important missteps in its draft paper is the continued lack of support for any research that doesn’t have a direct and immediate potential to be commercialized. Supporting industry and innovation is important. But creating new technology products isn’t the exclusive purpose of science. And innovation ultimately relies on fundamental, basic science – which is being cut in the name of supporting business innovation. Transforming Canada’s research capacity into a literal “concierge” to industry limits the ability for research to benefit Canadians. Canada needs research to generate more than tech products.

See Evidence for Democracy’s full submission to the Government of Canada regarding the new science and technology policy.

How we value science and knowledge in our society shapes our future. I’m concerned the current government is making important mistakes. I feel compelled to take action. E4D has many great ideas in development that can make an impact on Canadian science policy and benefit Canadians. We could use your help. Join and support the Canadian science advocates at Evidence for Democracy!

Walking down University Ave. during the Canada-wide E4D led "Stand Up for Science" rally in Toronto.

Walking down University Ave. during the Canada-wide E4D led “Stand Up for Science” rally in Toronto.

 

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