Two recent cover photos

I usually post politics-y stuff here. But… I’m happy my photography has been featured in two Canadian science journals recently.

In between taking measurements of the Canadian high Arctic atmosphere, troubleshooting instruments, and running communications for the research team at PEARL, I took plenty of photos. They’ve been useful for public talks, science communications, and general enjoyment. So far, my photos have found their way into a calendar, major news outlets, a variety of websites, and now the two cover photos.

First up was the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (CMOS) Bulletin. Their December 2016 issue featured a photo of the PEARL research team installing instruments on the roof. These instruments were for satellite validation. I also contributed an article about the fieldwork and a small collection of photos. And, of course, the cover! You can find the excerpt I contributed here:

CMOS Bulletin – Dec. 2016 (Dan Weaver cover and article)

Here’s the cover only:

CMOS Bulletin - December 2016 - cover (photo by Dan Weaver)

CMOS Bulletin – December 2016 – cover (photo by Dan Weaver)

Next was the Physics in Canada Issue 01 of 2017. While it was the first issue of the year, it wasn’t published until June. In any case, my photo is on the cover! The photo is also taken on the PEARL roof. It features the protective enclosure of a sun tracking instrument that sends a beam of sunlight down into the infrared (IR) spectroscopy lab below. I spent plenty of time during campaigns both on the roof and within the IR lab.

Research from colleagues of mine filled the issue. However, there isn’t a way to provide direct links to specific issues on the PiC site.

The cover photo can be seen here:

Physics in Canada – 2017 Iss.01 – Cover (photo by Dan Weaver)

Physics in Canada - 2017 No.01 - cover (photo by Dan Weaver)

Physics in Canada – 2017 No.01 – cover (photo by Dan Weaver)

 

Which 2015 federal election platform offers to best policies for Canadian science and research?

Science and research in the 2015 election platforms

I read through all 318 pages of Conservative, Liberal, and NDP platform documents seeking to understand their different visions for science in Canada.

For the first time, science has become an election issue in Canada. In the 2015 federal election, political party platforms feature science and research commitments, major media outlets have covered science issues (e.g. Maclean’s, the Globe & Mail, CBC, Quirks & Quarks had a science debate), and advocacy groups are mobilizing public support for science. Science’s role in Canadian society is up for debate. Particularly now, after several years of policies aimed at limiting and narrowing the scope of how science fits into policy and government decisions.

All parties agree Canada needs to do more to foster innovation and the commercialization of research. For decades, Canada has failed to effectively capitalize on its strong research universities to foster innovative companies. The Conservative, NDP, and Liberal platforms commit Canada to investing in research that supports innovation generally, as well as the manufacturing, agriculture, and natural resources (e.g. forestry, mining, fisheries) sectors specifically. The NDP and Conservatives commit to supporting the space industry. Despite being equipped with Canada’s first astronaut, the Liberals don’t mention the Canadian Space Agency or the space industry.

Beyond innovation, platforms diverge.

The Conservatives view science narrowly, and treat it almost exclusively as a tool for economic development. As the Harper-appointed President of the National Research Council said a few years ago, “scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.” In essence, that is the Conservative platform on science.

Despite being the one science and research area the Conservatives paid attention to, private-sector R&D has worsened throughout the Harper years.

There are three exceptions to the Conservative’s singular emphasis on private-sector research needs. The Conservatives also pledge to fund “cutting-edge health research”, specifically targeting improvements to palliative care, cancer treatment, and the Canada Brain Research Fund. They would also continue to fund research into the root causes of terrorism. (A dramatic change of mind from a Prime Minister that once told Trudeau not to “commit sociology”.) Lastly, the Conservatives included a plainly worded vague commitment to provide “ongoing support for” the granting councils that fund most university research in Canada (NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR). This makes the recent editorial cartoon musing that the Conservatives wish to eliminate science altogether at least slightly exaggerated.

These Conservative platform pieces are laudable policies. However, much is missing.

Public interest science, designed to inform politicians and Canadians about pressing environmental, health, and social issues, is absent from the Conservative platform. However, their governing record offers insights into what role they think science should play in government policy. While in power, the Conservatives have dismissed the expertise of federal scientists as mere opinion, demonstrated a worrisome lack of scientific literacy (e.g. here, here, and here), cut research funding, fired thousands of public scientists, and muzzled government scientists. (Longer lists are available elsewhere.) There is no indication this pattern will change. Indeed, financial planning documents show that further cuts to government science programs are planned (e.g. Environment Canada resources will be cut annually).

The NDP and Liberal Party propose a more expansive role for science and evidence. Both platforms commit restoring the long-form census and increasing research funding. Both parties commit to making government data freely available. Both parties support allowing publicly-funded scientists to openly speak to the public and media about research results (a popular policy amongst Canadians, according to a Maclean’s poll). Both have committed to restoring environmental protections lost when the Fisheries Act was gutted and the Navigable Waters Protections Act was eliminated.

Significantly, and in contrast to the Conservatives, the NDP and Liberals propose creating institutions that would advise politicians of facts relevant to policy issues, and help inform government decisions with the best available evidence. To accomplish this, the NDP would create the Office of the Parliamentary Science Officer and a Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. These institutions would “ensure that our government always has access to the best possible scientific advice from experts in all fields.” The Liberals, meanwhile, promise to enhance Parliamentary committees with non-partisan research staff, and create a Chief Science Officer with a mandate to ensure government science is publicly available, scientists can speak freely and that scientific analysis is considered in government decisions. Our G7 partners all have science advisors. The U.S. has a well-resourced Office of Science and Technology Policy. It’s long past time that Canada catches up to the needs of 21st century policymaking.

If the Liberals and NDP find themselves in a minority Parliament, science offers fertile opportunities to find common ground. There are, however, differences between the NDP and Liberals.

The NDP platform mentions science and research the fewest times of all. However, they make substantial commitments. Similar to the Conservatives and Liberals, they would promote innovation and industrial/business-focused research. Uniquely, the NDP would create funding for women’s organizations and community-based health research. They also want to make it “easier for businesses to access government support for innovation, talent and R&D.” It is unclear what the NDP believe is lacking in the federal government’s literal concierge service for industrial research support.

The Liberal platform offers more to science and research than either the NDP or Conservatives. The Liberals offer specific commitments that repair some cuts to science under the Conservatives, including investments in freshwater research and the Experimental Lakes Area, enhancements to support for marine and ocean science and pollution monitoring, and funding for Canada Research Chairs in sustainable technology. These proposals don’t match the scale of losses incurred over the last decade. But they are a start.

The Liberals included a section devoted to “Evidence-Based Policy”, which includes general commitments similar to the NDP (e.g. “Government should base its policies on facts”) but also specific commitments and details which are unique. Not only would they restore the long-form census, they also commit to expanding data collection by Statistics Canada (e.g. “including detailed labour market information) and “make Statistics Canada fully independent.” The latter point is significant, and aims to prevent another instance of critical data becoming compromised by politics.

The Liberals also propose expanding entrepreneurship programs, clean technology research funds, and co-op placements for science, math, and engineering students.

Overall, in my view, the Liberal Party platform contains the best set of commitments to support science, use evidence in government decisions, and leverage Canada’s tremendous research talent for Canadians’ benefit.

I nonetheless hope that – no matter who forms the next government – Canada creates a respected and valued place for knowledge, data, and science. There are good ideas in all three platform documents. But it is action that will help Canadians. If the Liberals and NDP keep their word and make decisions based on the best data, and release that data to the public, Canadian society and democracy will benefit immensely. Time will tell. 

Access all platform documents conveniently from the CBC here.

I have left my raw notes/copied reference text from the platforms here.

Canadian Nobel Prize win highlights what’s lost in Harper science policy

It’s inspiring to see a Canadian and a Canadian experiment sharing the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics. This is significant international recognition of Canadian scientific excellence.

I studied the neutrino experiments in Canada and Japan in detail in undergrad physics courses (see this YouTube video for a fun explanation of neutrino oscillation using pies). It’s fascinating science. However, these are example of fundamental research with no obvious or immediate commercial application. Regrettably, our current government has implemented policies that limit this type of science in Canada.

Consider an illustrative example: the current President of Canada’s National Research Council, appointed by the Prime Minister, has stated that “scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.” Yikes. I disagree. Commercialization of research and innovation is a good thing. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of basic research. Frequently, research grants now require industry partners. This makes it very difficult for many research streams which may not align with industry wishes. If you cut off fundamental “blue sky” research, you turn off the tap fuelling the technology-driven knowledge economy. It’s short sighted.

When lasers were first invented, they had no immediate applications. It took decades, but eventually their commercial value was immense. Even neutrino research is leading to new technology and ideas with the potential to help with border security (scanning cargo containers for nuclear material), and maybe even mining and communication.  It’s impossible to predict where research into the nature of the universe will go. But it’s worth pursuing.

The Liberals and the NDP both have significant elements in their platforms about supporting Canadian science. The Conservatives? They’ve been cutting research budgets, misunderstanding innovation, and firing scientists for a decade. I can’t find anything about science on their website. It’s time for their “subtle darkening of Canadian life” (as described in a recent NY Times article) to come to an end. It’s time for Canada to step back into the light, and vote for a government that values and supports science this election.

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.