In my experience, scientists generally like to stay out of politics as much as possible. So I was a bit surprised to learn that a group of several hundred scientists and concerned citizens are planning to march on Parliament Hill. Dressed either in lab coats or in black clothing, the group will stage a mock funeral mourning the “death of evidence.” It’s the most visible sign yet of a growing discontent toward the Conservative government’s policies vis-à-vis science and evidence-based decision making.
A similar stunt was pulled by British scientists just a few months ago. But that protest was a bit different: the complaints mainly had to do with funding cuts to university-based scientific research. Here, although funding cuts are a concern, the overall allegation is more serious. “The scientific community is concerned and frustrated about what appears to be a systematic and deliberate campaign to reduce the flow of scientific information to Canadians,” says Scott Findlay. He’s an associate professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Ottawa and one of the organizers of the protest.
So, what is the evidence for the demise of evidence itself? The list of complaints provided by Findlay and his colleagues stretches back over four years. Here are some highlights:
– In 2008, the Conservatives eliminated the office of the National Science Advisor just four years after it was revived by Paul Martin’s Liberal Government. Instead, they created a new Science, Technology, and Innovation Council whose mandate is more narrowly focused on how Canada can use science for economic development.
– In 2010 the mandatory long form census was scrapped, ostensibly to ‘limit what many Canadians felt was an invasion of their privacy’ in the words of then-Industry Minister Tony Clement. At the time, many scientists pointed out that this would impede effective sampling and erode the government’s ability to collect essential data. Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh ended up resigning over the affair.
– Starting in the fall of 2011, several large-scale scientific research programs either lost significant amounts of funding or were closed down entirely. These include the ozone monitoring network, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), and pollution monitoring programs at both Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada. (Heartwarming side note: PEARL was kept open for an additional few months by money from public donations.)
– Last month, the so-called ‘omnibus budget bill’ was passed. Buried in its 400+ pages are changes to a number of acts that touch on the issue of science-based regulation. These include the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and Species at Risk Act. All these were altered to allow for more discretion on the part of the relevant minister, and less reliance on scientific data gathering.
– Last but not least, all this was happening in the context of continuing restrictions on media access to government scientists, which I deal with on a daily basis, and about which I wrote at length last February.
Admittedly, it is a long list. But do cuts to research and advisory bodies necessarily add up to an attack on science and evidence? We may have lost the National Science Advisor (NSA) and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE), but we still have the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) and the Canadian Council of Academies (CCA); aren’t these enough? “Similar things have been done in other countries, but the fact is that they still have national science advisors that speak directly to heads of state,” says Findlay. “Beside, the CCA is designed to be reactive, taking requests from federal government departments. By contrast, the role of the National Science Advisor, at least historically, was extremely proactive.”
What about the argument that in these ‘tough economic times’ science-based departments should have to take their lumps along with everybody else? “It all comes down to an issue of resource allocation,” says Findlay. “The government may be cutting funding for various scientific programs, but they also seem intent on spending $15-25 billion for F-35 fighter jets. Well, for the price of one jet [$75-130 million] you can do a lot of science. I think the scarce resources we have might better be allocated to providing the kind of scientific evidence that Canadians need to make an informed decision on a whole wide range of issues.”
So, are the Harper conservatives anti-evidence? Certainly it’s true that in some cases (the long-form census and the gun registry are two good examples) they have ignored certain facts in order to satisfy their electoral base. But that’s their prerogative: the fact is that all governments ignore advice, even scientific advice, when it suits them to do so. And unlike the loonies in some other countries, our government has made no moves to deny the truth of fundamental scientific principles, even controversial ones like climate change.
What’s more worrying to me is the idea that the changes they have made in recent years could impair the ability of future governments to take science-based advice, even if they want to. Science depends on the long-term, careful gathering of unbiased data, and the freedom to analyse and discuss that data in an open, transparent way. If scientists are marching on Parliament Hill, it must be because they fear their ability to do that is threatened. Who could blame them for wanting to defend it?
The funeral procession is scheduled to leave the Ottawa Congress Centre, heading for Parliament Hill, at noon on July 10, 2012. To find out more, visit deathofevidence.ca