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Getting science wrong, with dire consequences

By: | April 25, 2014

Researchers warn of the growing impact of political intervention on scientific research in Canada

Hundreds gathered on Parliament Hill on July 10, 2012 to protest the Conservative government's growing neglect of scientific evidence in legislation and policy-making. Photo by Richard Webster.

Barb Neis is no stranger to the challenges of living along Canada’s rural and coastal margins. A sociologist by trade, her work in Newfoundland and Labrador has included extensive research on the fishery, on occupational health and safety, on migrant workers (including interprovincial workers), and more.

What is strange to her is the growing – and troubling – tendency of the federal government to interfere in the ability of herself and other experts to conduct the research they’re trying to do, research which they hope will help improve lives and reduce the vulnerability of Canadian residents to social and environmental risks.

Yet according to many, political interference in the funding and carrying out of basic scientific research is reaching a crisis point in Canada, and it’s the topic of an innovative town hall meeting happening in St. John’s on Monday night.

‘Get Science Right’ is part of a national campaign organized by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). At a series of town halls across the country, scientific experts are speaking out against federal policies that silence scientists and allow for political interference in the research that is being done.

A public danger

Neis, one of the panelists at Monday’s town hall, has no doubts about the public dangers of political interference in science.

“This province is highly vulnerable to climate change. We’re a coastal province, we’ve got sea level rise, increasing likelihood of extreme events, and we are vulnerable to those changes. So the elimination, or control over research on climate change in Canada on the part of the federal government contributes to the risk of people in this province.”

Neis is deeply troubled by the trends she’s witnessed. She says parks are the ideal place to study climate change, yet she’s spoken to Parks Canada employees who say they’ve been ordered not to talk about it. In social science, the recent elimination of the mandatory long-form census has removed the most effective means of understanding what social, demographic and labour trends are occurring in communities. And then of course, there’s the fisheries.

“We need strong science in fisheries. And we’re going to need more of it, not less. As climate change and increased activity in the offshore environment change fish activity, and as there’s increased possibility of contamination, where is the federal ability to study contaminants? That’s one of the areas that was really cut by the federal government.”

Getting it right

James Turk is Executive Director of the CAUT, which is organizing the ‘Get Science Right’ campaign.

“The government of Canada is handling research and scientific policy in a terrible way, which is having very negative consequences for Canada and for research and scientific work being done in Canada,” he states bluntly.

Turk chronicles in clear and precise fashion the shift he believes has occurred since Harper’s Conservatives came to power. The federal Conservatives have, he says, moved systematically to put science under political control. This, he argues, has involved shifting funding away from basic research (while defunding projects that might threaten the Conservative Party’s political priorities), stacking the research councils and granting agencies with political appointees and supporters, imposing rules that prioritize certain types of research which happen to uphold Conservative political goals, and silencing and intimidating scientific experts. The result of all this has diverted scientific research away from the long-term public good and instead turned it to the service of corporate private profit. Coupled with the growing corporate influence over universities, it’s created a state of affairs he warns all Canadians ought to be worried about.

Defunding basic science

According to Turk, there’s a distinction between science as traditionally practised, and science as the Conservatives are demanding it be practised. Science has typically placed great importance on what’s referred to as ‘basic research’ – scientists pursuing broad (or sometimes incredibly narrow) research agendas based on what interests them, instinctively, as scientists. That funding is now being reduced and re-allocated into programs that require scientists to pursue specific projects geared toward the needs of corporate industry. An example is the Engage Grants program, which has diverted $21.8 million to support “short-term research and development projects aimed at addressing a company-specific problem”.

The hi-jacking of public dollars and public research programs to serve the interests of private for-profit corporations is evident in other ways: Gary Goodyear, Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, was reported by CBC as saying “he envisions the National Research Council becoming a ‘concierge’ service that offers a single phone number to connect businesses to all their research and development needs.”

“They’re doing it because they have a fundamental misunderstanding of how we advance knowledge,” explains Turk. “Government thinks that if [they’re] spending money, [they] want to spend it on something that will pay off…The one thing we know from 200 or 300 years of science is that’s the exact opposite of what should be done. If you were to ask any biologist or physicist or chemist or engineer about the advancements that have been important in the last 50 years, all of them have been the result of [non-commercial] basic research. Computers, MRIs, GPS, X-rays, radio – they didn’t come about as a result of people setting out to develop them. They came about as a result of basic research.”

He offered the example of Paul Berg, who received the Nobel prize for his work in helping understand the mysteries of DNA – experimental research which Berg has warned might never have been done under current corporate-driven research agendas. Berg “was doing as a scientist what [he] thought would advance our basic knowledge, and didn’t have any idea of where it would lead,” says Turk. “And now it underlies a trillion-dollar biotech industry. And that’s true of almost any scientific work.

“There are people doing research on various species of birds that may help us understand the aerodynamics of airplanes. Or studying molecules and out of that comes knowledge that can then be applied in cancer treatments. By shifting money away from basic research, the federal government is killing the goose that laid the golden egg. They’re saying ‘if we spend money, let’s spend it on something useful.’ That’s an understandable goal, but in science we don’t know what that something is.”

“It shouldn’t be politicians, it shouldn’t be business leaders, it shouldn’t be interest groups making these decisions. It should be the scientists doing the research.”

Stacking scientific councils

Another deeply troubling strategy, according to Turk, is the growing substitution of scientific experts with political and industry appointments on the research boards that control a great deal of the publicly funded research in Canada.

There are three key federal funding agencies for scientific research: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR). These councils review research applications for their respective jurisdictions each year and determine which grants to approve and how much to award them, according to the budgetary allocations and other requirements set by the federal government. Typically, however, it’s scientists and researchers who set the research standards.

Since the Conservatives took office, Turk says, three troubling trends have occurred: a steady reduction in funding to the research councils; increasingly strict – and politically-driven – rules on what type of research is to be encouraged and funded; and political appointments to the granting agencies. Turk noted that NSERC, for instance, no longer has any biologists, chemists, physicists or mathematicians on the board, but it does have the former executive director of the Fraser Institute, a right-wing think-tank criticized for supporting Conservative ideology. In fact 56 per cent of NSERC Council members are not active scientists. SSHRC contains no sociologists or political scientists, but has a high proportion of business professors and corporate industry representatives. CIHR, which controls health research, has on its board representatives of corporate industry from Pfizer and Barclays Capital Canada, among others.

“What the government has been doing is stacking the councils of the granting boards…What you have is science being basically taken over by a right-wing ideology. And even though the government is spending a lot of money, it’s spending it badly and it’s spending it in a way that ultimately undermines the advancement of science and technology in Canada.”

Muzzling Canada’s scientists

Equally distressing according to Turk is the use of strong-arm tactics to silence and intimidate Canada’s scientists from speaking publicly about their research. Not only is this a violation of fundamental rights to free speech, says Turk, but it also deprives the public – and industry, and even various levels of government – from accessing the information they need to make responsible decisions. This began with the elimination of the mandatory long-form census, but has intensified to include government crackdowns on scientists’ ability to speak publicly about the research they do.

“How do you develop social policy, how do you develop educational policy, when you have no data? But government looks at it differently – they look at it as how do you criticize government initiatives when you have no data? You can’t! You can’t show they’re wrong. The only way to evaluate government policy is through the collection of data.”

He cites the examples of Dr. Kristi Miller (a federal fisheries scientist who claims she was prevented by government from talking to media about her research into the BC sockeye salmon collapse), and Prof. Andreas Muenchow (a professor from the University of Delaware who has worked with Canadian federal government scientists for over 10 years on Arctic research, and spoke out when the Conservative government demanded last year that he sign a confidentiality order surrounding the research that was being done). In Miller’s case, government policy stipulated that when asked questions by journalists, government media staff would instruct the “expert to respond with approved lines.”

Indeed, Turk notes that Canada’s bizarre turn toward a strict state-control of scientific research has baffled other nations and impacted the country’s international research reputation.

“When we simply don’t know basic facts about the population of Canada, people wonder what the heck is going on.”

Even the esteemed international scientific journal Nature – which rarely gets political – criticized the Canadian government in an unusually sharp editorial published in 2012. “Governments come and go, but scientific expertise and experience cannot be chopped and changed as the mood suits and still be expected to function,” the editorial read in part.

A threat to democracy

The grim assessment that researchers like Turk and Neis offer of the plight facing scientific research in Canada presents a bleak picture: a 10.1 per cent decrease in funding to SSHRC since 2007, a 61 per cent decrease in success rates for CIHR operating grants, concentration of funding in a handful of elite ‘stars’ as opposed to funding a wider range of researchers and students (in 2011 almost $18 million was awarded to 13 NSERC ‘Canada Excellence Research Chairs’; the same amount could have funded 545 additional researchers under the Discovery Grants program), and theats to important and world-renowned research projects like the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory and the Experimental Lakes Area, not to mention the elimination of the mandatory long-form census (the voluntary census that replaced it was both more expensive and less scientifically reliable).

Researchers like Turk and Neis warn that not only does political intervention in science produce bad science, but it imperils the stable functioning of democratic society. They both pointed to the elimination of the mandatory long-form census as an example.

“Researchers used it to link where people live with where they work – it allowed municipalities to locate bus routes, or daycares and libraries,” explains Turk. “Businesses would use that data to link income and social demographic characteristics so businesses could decide whether this was the neighbourhood they wanted to locate themselves in, or for municipalities to decide where to provide services.” It also provided some of the only reliable statistical data on aboriginal peoples, he noted.

“There are huge consequences for the province, and to some extent we saw that,” says Neis. “Municipalities, businesses, they all opposed the elimination of the census. [The elimination of the census] was an ideologically driven position that was not supported by evidence. The decision wasn’t based on evidence, it wasn’t based on science, we’re not sure what it was based on. And it’s very hard to do science without data.”

Neis also disputes the government’s use of budget cuts as a rationale for the changes they have made. She says that she’s heard of cases where departments that were ordered to make cuts spent a great deal of effort to figure out how to make the cuts so as to minimize impact on the most important research projects. Yet repeatedly, she claims, orders came from Ottawa interfering with their decisions, and targeting which specific researchers and projects were to be cut. “This was direct political intervention in departments…and often, from what I’ve seen, it’s been the most senior and most important work that’s been cut. So it’s not just about the loss of expertise, but also about the disciplining effect that’s going to have on people who stay. Those people who are left will feel vulnerable.”

Neis says it’s akin to the strategy developed in the United States by the tobacco industry.

“They decided it was easier to attack the science than the policy. The way you attack science is by manufacturing doubt…by weakening our science capacity, we’re setting ourselves up for the manufacturing of doubt and for a policy that says ‘we won’t do anything until we have absolute proof’. And in science, we rarely ever have absolute proof.”

Hopeful for change, but it will take work

Still, Turk is confident that the message is getting through. He noted that in this year’s budget the federal government seemed more hesitant around continuing its political crackdown on science, and Turk hopes it’s a sign public pressure is starting to have an effect.

“The advancement of science is a long-term project and not a short-term project, and I think the public does have a sense of that. I think the public does understand that. I don’t think the problem is with the public, I think the problem is with the government that’s trying to interfere ideologically.”

Response to the town-halls has been strong and enthusiastic, according to Turk. They’ve been held in various cities in Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and British Columbia. And they intend to keep going, raising awareness and building pressure for a more principled, non-partisan and credible approach to scientific research in the public – not private – interest.

“To me this is a fundamental threat to democracy, to science, to our climate, and to our human health,” says Neis. “To our capacity to hold government and industry to account. To hold any group to account.”

The ‘Get Science Right’ town hall in St. John’s will be happening Monday April 28, from 7-9 p.m. in the Bruneau Centre (IIC-2001) at Memorial University. The event will be moderated by CBC’s Chris O’Neill-Yates, and panelists include Dr. Barb Neis (University Research Professor in Sociology and Co-Director of the SafetyNet Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Research), Dr. Bill Montevecchi (University Research Professor in Psychology, Biology and Ocean Science), and Dr. Paul Snelgrove, Professor of Biology and Ocean Science and Director of the NSERC Canadian Healthy Oceans Network). For more information check out this link or find the event page on Facebook.


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