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Acrimony In Canadian Science

Funding shifts, curbs on scientists’ speech lead research community to rare protests

by Andrea Widener
October 28, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 43

Credit: Kevin O'Donnell
Scientists gather on Sept. 16, in Ottawa to protest what they see as an attack on science by the government.
Scientists gather on September 16, 2013, in Ottawa to protest what they see as an attack on science.
Credit: Kevin O'Donnell
Scientists gather on Sept. 16, in Ottawa to protest what they see as an attack on science by the government.

“Evidence Matters 2 Canadians!” and “No Science, No Evidence, No Truth, No Democracy” are just two of the messages adorning signs that scientists throughout Canada displayed during rare protests last month.

Several thousand Canadian scientists and science supporters took to the streets in 15 cities to campaign against what they see as an attack on science by the current Canadian government, which is led by conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper has shifted some funding away from basic science and environmental projects to focus on applied research that supports industry. He has also limited government scientists’ ability to interact with the media and restricted some of them from presenting their work at scientific conferences—an action many observers see as a direct assault on the basic principles of science.

The protests are a new turn for Canada’s researchers. “It is unprecedented. I’ve never seen such mobilization,” says Paul Dufour, from the Institute for Science, Society & Policy at the University of Ottawa, in Ontario, and a former science adviser to several government agencies. Until now, “the research community in this country has been by and large absent as a political advocacy group.”

C&EN’s multiple requests for comment from Canada’s minister of state for science and technology were unsuccessful. But chemist Howard Alper, who leads the Science, Technology & Innovation Council (STIC), which advises Harper, says the government has been a strong supporter of science.

In the past five years, the government has created several important research programs focusing on support of young scientists, Alper says. These include new funding streams for doctoral students and postdocs, as well as a $10 million research chair program (Canadian dollars throughout). “The major problem in Canada, frankly, is that business underperforms in investing in R&D, particularly the chemical industry,” he says.

Although the Canadian government’s funding for science has decreased slightly since 2006, when Harper’s administration took over, government funding for science in Canada nevertheless remains strong. At 1.97% of gross domestic product, it is slightly above the average for European countries. Canada’s science budget for the April 2013 to March 2014 fiscal year is $10.5 billion, down 3.3% from the previous year.

More than the dollar amounts, it is where the science funding is going that has the country’s scientists up in arms. “It is not that [the Harper government is] against science. They are for science in the service of industry,” says Yves Gingras, a professor of the history and sociology of science at the University of Quebec, Montreal. “I think this is a real crisis. In Canadian history this is the first time we have had a really ideological government.”

Last year, an omnibus spending bill from Harper’s government made major changes to environmental science and monitoring in Canada, much of it without debate or consultation, explains writer and politician Chris Turner. Turner is the author of a new book, “The War on Science,” which details Harper’s interactions with the scientific community since he took office.

Among the most high-profile changes was defunding of a $2 million-per-year research program called the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), Turner says. ELA is a freshwater ecosystems research program that has allowed researchers to study 58 lakes in remote northern Ontario since the 1960s. Among its major research accomplishments were findings that led to the ban on phosphorus in laundry detergents.

“Why would you pick a little budget item like the ELA?” Turner asks. The answer, he says, is “because it is the kind of research that leads to major regulatory change.”

Provincial governments have stepped up to try to take over ELA, but other programs that were killed have not been as lucky. Gordon McBean has run a federally funded foundation that supports climate and atmospheric research since 2000. The foundation supported about half of the country’s climate research. A previous administration had provided the foundation with $100 million over 10 years for research grants. When the current government failed to provide additional funding last year, the foundation ran out of money, he explains.

“It is just part of a lack of recognition that these kinds of programs need a continuity of funding,” McBean says. “You can’t just turn on and off funding of this kind.”

The funding shift isn’t just away from environmental research. Earlier this year, the government announced that Canada’s National Research Council, one of its main basic research centers, would begin to focus entirely on industry-driven research.

Alper says that Canada has had a long-term deficit of federal funding for applied research. And the change doesn’t necessarily mean that no basic research will be done, he says. It will just be basic research focused on industry problems. “The Canadian government has started to come to a healthier balance,” Alper says.

Many of the Canadian government’s science funding decisions have been made in secret, which has fueled skeptics’ belief that the government is failing to get the advice it needs. What’s more, the Harper administration has eliminated the position of science adviser to the prime minister and axed the National Round Table on the Environment & the Economy, which gave independent science advice to the government on sustainable development.

STIC replaced those advisers. Alper says that when the government does take the group’s advice—which is often—its recommendations become public.

Critics counter that STIC meetings are closed, and some of its reports are never made public. The protest organizers hope that they can help the government and the public understand the importance of unbiased, open science advice in government decision making, says Katie Gibbs, who cofounded the advocacy group Evidence for Democracy, which organized the protests.

Perhaps the most egregious problem for many researchers inside and outside government is the muzzling of government scientists. Many federal scientists have not been allowed to talk to the media about their own publications, and government handlers have followed some researchers around at meetings.

After its members reported problems, the normally cautious Royal Society of Canada (RSC) took a stand against the practices, says Pekka Sinervo, a physicist and member of the society’s Ad Hoc Committee on Intervention in Matters of Public Interest. The society’s president wrote an editorial about the problem addressed to the government for the Globe & Mail newspaper.

“Government scientists’ ability to engage in scholarly discussion and dissemination of their work has been restricted,” Sinervo explains. Most governments struggle with how open their researchers should be, but “there needs to be some recognition that there is a mutually beneficial relationship between scientists and the government, and the government’s behavior is impairing that.”

Though the editorial was published in January, RSC has yet to receive a response from the Harper government. And that lack of response reflects larger concerns Canadian scientists face. A recent survey of more than 4,000 government scientists by an employee union showed that 37% were prevented from talking to the public or the media and 24% were asked to alter reports for nonscientific reasons. Half reported knowledge of cases where health and safety or sustainability were compromised because of political interference.

The protest movement “really is grassroots, and it does reflect some of the anxiety that is felt in some quarters around the direction the country is taking,” Sinervo says. “I think there is a sense that we are losing the gains that have been hard fought and won over the last decades.”

The protests have received widespread media coverage in Canada, and the opposition political party has taken up the cause. Whether it will prompt the public to change its vote might not be known until the scheduled 2015 elections. So far the protests, letters, and other actions don’t appear to have spurred many changes.

“The science community in Canada doesn’t want to be out in the streets protesting,” Gibbs says. “Our objective is to let Canadians know that the scientific community is really concerned about the changes and that it matters to them.”


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