The Canadian Government’s War on Science

Original version published in the Kelowna Courier, August 2015, by Blythe NilsonStand up for Science

Winter is coming.

It may still be summer but Canadian scientists are feeling a chill in the air. Federal researchers across Canada say they are muzzled and manipulated by the government. In “Science Under Siege”, aired in June on “Ideas”, the CBC documents the erosion of pure science and the loss of expertise that has taken place since Harper took office. Government scientists are increasingly prohibited from discussing results with the very public that funds their research. Debi Daviau, a union head representing 15,000 federal researchers, states that “instead of doing evidence-based science, her members are forced to make their work fit government ideology.” According to Daviau, government scientists used to talk with journalists freely about their findings. Now all publications and interactions with the public must be approved by the Ministry of State (Science and Technology). Formal interview requests are referred not to the scientists, but to the media wing, where they are often denied or delayed by a “labyrinthine” bureaucracy until the journalists’ deadlines have passed. Scientists wishing to present their work at scientific meetings, which is what scientists do, must now ask permission and are sometimes denied even though they are willing to pay their own way. Minister Ed Holder maintains that the Minister is the spokesperson for government scientists and all publications must go through his office. He is an insurance broker with no science education whatsoever but who nonetheless feels qualified to adjudicate scientific papers. Some requests get referred all the way up to the PMO but, since Harper dismissed his science advisor in 2008, he must be relying on lobbyists and the internet for science advice. It is clear to many that a war on science is in full swing.

Policy makers all over North America are reducing, stifling and denying science while the Canadian public appears unconcerned. More troubling, many Canadians dismiss or even deny scientific evidence. A friend of mine described a recent discussion about acupuncture with a new friend that ended abruptly when the friend announced that “not everyone is interested in facts”. The friendship ended as abruptly as the conversation did. Candidates in the seemingly perpetual presidential campaign in the United States are unwilling to discuss science at all, especially if the topics address right wing ideologically. Many American “news” personalities openly deride science and scientists. Opinions of politicians or celebrities are treated as if they were equal to those of leading scientific experts who are dismissed as “elitists” or “biased”. Treating scientific consensus as “just an opinion” betrays a profound lack of scientific understanding. One is welcome to one’s own opinions, but not one’s own facts.

In March, the cover of National Geographic asked “Why do many reasonable people deny science?” The article described the growing rift between scientists and non-scientists, which seems to be creating a pair of solitudes. Even as the products of the scientific revolution permeate society they are becoming more and more impenetrable to the layperson. GPS relies on Einstein’s theory of special relativity, medicine depends on molecular genetics and engineering uses nanotechnology, for example. The cutting edge discoveries that ultimately lead to advances in medicine, energy technology and all the other aspects of society that benefit from progress, require a national cadre of highly educated, superbly trained experts and nurturing institutions. Today’s research scientists require such specialized expertise and wisdom that it’s difficult for scientists in other fields, never mind laypeople, to understand their work. It is the height of hubris for news anchors or politicians to feel they can weigh in with their uninformed opinions.

Perhaps people are becoming so accustomed to the advance of science they assume it happens automatically. In fact, many breakthroughs take years to reap financial benefits and have humble beginnings that are not recognized as important for decades. A dozen or so scientists working in relative obscurity on “medically unimportant” retroviruses all of a sudden became essential to the fight against HIV when a retrovirus started the AIDS epidemic. The first cell phone call was placed in 1973 but it took a while to catch on. You never know what will be important later.

Societies that invest in basic science and “blue sky” research tend to flourish because that’s where the amazing next discovery always comes from. In Canada basic, or curiosity-driven, research is being cut or reduced in favour of applied or revenue-driven research. Applied research has a target in mind that is then perfected or designed. Curiosity-driven research probes unknown areas of science and is the best mechanism for learning completely new things but we are losing countless opportunities as the programs are slashed. Data is lost and our world experts move to more welcoming countries. Even more devastating is way the government seems to be selectively eliminating research projects that contradict Harper’s ideology. “The Silence of the Labs”, the January 2014 episode of The Fifth Estate, documented how research projects that reveal negative effects of the oil and gas industry or criticize certain social issues are targeted disproportionately. Inconvenient evidence is quietly swept away in an Orwellian fashion. It’s very un-Canadian.

The free flow of ideas is essential to scientific discovery and democratic freedom is possible only when voters can fully understand scientific policy. This war on science may well be the harbinger of a Roman style descent into barbarism. Ok, I admit to a bit of hyperbole but we could find ourselves falling behind the rest of the world in medical, energy and other critical technologies. Scientific literacy is essential for all Canadians and an attack on science is an attack on our society. I certainly care about facts and I hope you do too.

More Links

The Canadian War on Science:
Chris Mooney – The Republican War on Science:

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