Canadian scientists and their supporters held demonstrations across the country Monday, calling on the federal government to stop cutting scientific research and muzzling scientists.
“Stand Up for Science” events were held in 17 cities by the non-profit science advocacy group Evidence for Democracy.
“Scientists would rather be doing research than rallying, but many of us are concerned about the health of public science, and feel that Canadians should understand these concerns,” said Scott Findlay, a co-founder of Evidence of Democracy and a professor of biology at the University of Ottawa, in a statement.
“The Canadian standard of living is, in large measure, a result of scientific discovery and technological innovation. So every Canadian has a vested interest in the health of public science, and the use of scientific evidence to protect and sustain the values we hold.”
The group says “it’s time to stand up for science in the public interest” because in recent years:
- “Many important” scientific institutions have received cuts.
- There has been a shift in science funding toward the commercialization of research at the expense of more fundamental research.
- Government scientists have lost their ability to communicate their research to the public. That complaint is currently being investigated by the federal information commissioner.
The nationwide event, which follows a gathering on Parliament Hill last year to “mourn the death of evidence” called for the federal government to:
- Fund all scientific research, from basic to applied.
- Use the best available science and evidence to make decisions.
- Support the open communication of publicly funded science to the public, “unless there are demonstrably good reasons for not doing so.”
Justin Singer, a master’s student at Dalhousie University who helped organize the Halifax rally, said people should be concerned about this issue because it affects how policy decisions are made in areas such as health and the environment. He cited bill C-38, the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act, sponsored by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, passed on June 18, 2012, which Singer described as weakening environmental law and the fisheries regulations.
Government says it supports science
In response to the rallies, Minister of State for Science and Technology Greg Rickford issued a statement saying, "Our government is committed to science, technology and innovation and taking ideas to the marketplace."
He added that Canada ranked number 1 in the G7 for its higher education research and development, and that it is building on its successes to improve Canadians' quality of life and to create "jobs, growth and long-term prosperity."
The federal government has repeatedly said through its ministers that it has provided unprecedented support for science, investing $8 billion in research and development since taking office in 2006. It also insists that the government’s priority is getting independent science into the public domain, that its scientists are available for interviews (although journalists complain that the approval of interviews often comes days or weeks too late for media deadlines), and even scientists who aren’t available for interviews can communicate their research to the public through channels such as scientific publications.
But supporters of Monday’s rallies disagreed.
Diane Orihel, who has fought against the federal government's closure of its Experimental Lakes research facility, said she and other participants of Stand Up for Science were protesting cuts to labs in Manitoba and across the country, including those at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Freshwater Research Institute and the Cereal Research Centre.
“This is far beyond the ELA. ELA is one needle in the haystack,” she told CBC Manitoba ahead of the University of Winnipeg event. “Unfortunately. It has become a flagship issue for this government's anti-science, anti-environment agenda.”
Conservation biologist Pamela Zevit, who organized the Vancouver rally, said she is troubled by stories of government scientists being barred from speaking about their research.
“The practice of science requires this open communication of data,” she said.
NDP tables 'scientific integrity' motion
While the rallies took place, the NDP'S science and technology critic Kennedy Stewart introduced a motion supporting scientists' right to speak freely to the public, including expressing opinions beyond their scientific research. The motion states that government officials should not prevent scientists from responding to media requests in a timely or accurate manner and should be barred from directing federal scientists to suppress or alter their findings.
A statement from the office of Stewart, who is on leave from his position as a professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., states that the "motion on scientific integrity" is "based on recent directives issued by the Obama administration" in the U.S.