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Researchers stand up for science, plan rallies coast to coast

 

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

Once again, scientists and supporters across the country will rally on Monday, Sept. 16, to "Stand Up For Science."

It is a call on the federal government to support science in the public interest, not just the interest of corporations.

This is the second time scientists have left their labs to speak out publicly. A year ago, the "Death of Evidence" rally on Parliament Hill brought hundreds of scientists and NGOs together to mourn the loss of scientific research facilities, such as the Experimental Lakes Area (since saved by the Ontario and Manitoba governments) and the PEARL Arctic Research lab (saved by the same federal government that planned to close it.)

They also disagreed with the government's softening of environmental monitoring regulations to allow easier resource extraction, such as oil from Alberta being shipped to the West Coast, plus the muzzling of federal scientists that restricted them from speaking about their work to the public and media.

This year, rallies will take place in cities from coast to coast to speak out about the continued decline of evidence-based fundamental research in this country - research that attempts to understand how natural systems, such as the climate or marine ecosystems, work. 

The government has countered this argument, stating that, in fact, funding for science has increased. However, more of that funding now goes towards applied research - the type that leads to technology or resource development. 

In other words, corporate science that makes money.

Now, there is nothing wrong with corporate science or making money. It creates jobs and stimulates the economy - something politicians and financiers live for.

But that is only half of the scientific research community. 

The other half is basic science, the kind that simply goes out to look at the world and tries to figure out how it works.   

It was basic science that showed us little things, like our place in the universe, the force of gravity, evolution, global climate. It's simply a quest for understanding that is far from complete. 

And while this curiosity approach to science does not set out to develop technology, history has shown that virtually all of our technology has emerged from basic science. Every electronic device you can imagine sprung from Michael Faraday's fundamental experiments with electricity and magnets more than 150 years ago.

Today, the government is turning its back on basic science in favour of more applied science that partners with industry to do things, such as find fossil fuels, dig them out of the ground and transport them to foreign markets. But they are ignoring the basic science that tracks the environmental impacts of that industry.

Another way to look at it is that applied science gives you a look at the economy; basic science gives you a look at the planet. And we all know the planet is changing in ways that may not be good for the future economy.

This is not to say that one type of science is more important than the other. We need both. From the scientists' point of view, that balance has been upset by our current government and they are rallying to speak out about it.

They know that in order for us to make intelligent decisions about how we are going to manage our resources and develop our technologies, while preserving environmental integrity,  we need those basic science eyes on nature. Otherwise, we could blindly go down short-sighted technological pathways that could lead to dire consequences in the long term.

Canada has some of the finest universities in the world, churning out top-notch scientists.  If you want to hear their point of view, check out a rally near you on September 16th.