Scientists rally on Parliament Hill to mourn 'death of evidence'

Scientists invoking an image of the Grim Reaper took to Parliament Hill Tuesday to protest against federal cuts to everything from the long-form census to closure of the polar research station in Nunavut.

Canadian scientists aren't normally among the placard-waving crowd on Parliament Hill.

But today in Ottawa, scientists invoking an image of the Grim Reaper will take on the Stephen Harper government for what they call the "death of evidence" brought about by federal cuts to everything from the long-form census to closure of the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory in Nunavut.

'It definitely seems to us these cuts are not just part of fighting the deficit.'—Katie Gibbs

"Scientists are generally not agitators, but this continuous set of decisions has got very many scientists hot under the collar," says Scott Findlay, a rally organizer and University of Ottawa ecology professor.

Findlay says the scientific community is getting increasingly distressed by what appears to be a deliberate federal government campaign to reduce the capacity of federal institutions to collect evidence and bring it forward.

Those behind today's event — which invites people to come wearing lab coats or dressed in black — say it's important for Canadians to understand the impact of these recent government decisions.

"It definitely seems to us these cuts are not just part of fighting the deficit, that there is a systematic attack on science and the preferential cutting of programs that may produce results not in line with the Conservative agenda," says Katie Gibbs, a PhD student at the University of Ottawa and one of the organizers of the rally.


Do the 'death of evidence' warnings of Canadian scientists alarm you? How effective is the Grim Reaper imagery? Take our poll.

"But we feel that most Canadians regardless of their values or beliefs think that policies should be made based on evidence and based on facts, and that regardless of the decisions that the government decides to make, our democracy depends on an informed public."

For its part, the government has stood firmly behind its cost-cutting decisions, pointing to the need to reduce the deficit. It also argues that the changes it is making will boost efficiency and notes that it is making what it says is a $1.1 billion "investment" is in research, development and innovation over the next five years.

In 2010-11, federal government spending on science and technology came to $11.7 billion a year, Statistics Canada reported. But what it will be after this fiscal year is unclear.

A request Monday for comment on the scientists' rally and concerns was referred to the office of Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology.

In an emailed statement, Goodyear said the government has made "historic investments in science, technology and research to create jobs, grow our economy and improve the quality of life for Canadians."

"Budget 2012 enhanced federal government support for leading-edge research including $500 million — over five years – for the Canada Foundation for Innovation."

Funding in the budget included:

  • $17 million over two years to develop alternatives to existing isotope production.
  • $105 million over two years for forestry innovation and market development.
  • $60 million for Genome Canada to start a human health research competition, and to sustain the Science and Technology Centres until 2014-15.
  • $10 million over two years for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research to link Canadians to global research networks.

The government said it has an excellent track record for basic research, but that Canada has lagged behind peer nations on applied research and commercialization. The government says it's moving to correct that, but not at the expense of basic research.

While scientists have been concerned about government decisions and cuts dating back to 2006, Gibbs says the government's omnibus bill, C-38, and the changes it contained on everything from the Fisheries Act to environmental assessments, was the "final straw" leading to today's rally.

Examples of decisions that have sparked concern for scientists include:

Long-form census

In 2010, the government moved to cut the mandatory long-form census, while retaining the voluntary long-form census.

Departmental cuts

Budget cuts have hit research at Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Library and Archives Canada, the National Research Council Canada, Statistics Canada and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Experimental Lakes Area

The government is closing the Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned research facility in northwestern Ontario.

(Gibbs says studies done there came to conclusions that differred from research done in labs.  "On acid rain, they found that the acidity was toxic to fish at a much lower level than had been found in the laboratory studies and that did end up influencing the policy decisions.")


The government ended its funding that supported the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory in Eureka, Nunavut.

Organizers of today's rally also see a strategy on the part of Prime Minister Harper "to impede the bringing forward of scientific evidence into the public debate." Examples they cite include:

Gibbs and Findlay acknowledge the dire tone around today's rally, with its title, Death of Evidence, and the image of a Grim Reaper. But Gibbs argues that the sentiment is fitting.

"Unfortunately, things are that bad that a Grim Reaper is an appropriate sort of mascot for this rally."

But she wants there to be room for some optimism, too. "You still have to leave some hope that if the public gets engaged and gets informed, that we can turn this around."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.