The future of science in Canada is grim, warns a new advocacy group fighting for its survival.
Evidence for Democracy, a national non-partisan group comprised largely of scientists, journalists and concerned citizens, is asking the federal government to reverse what it sees as disconcerting trends in how science has been treated in Canada since the Conservative Party took power in 2006.
On Monday, it will host Stand Up for Science events across Canada — including Halifax — to bring attention to the deterioration of federally funded research, the dearth of evidence-based policy decision-making, and broken communication between scientists and the public.
“This isn’t just about scientists and our careers, but really what we’re trying to get across is the fact that science really does matter to all Canadians, that we all have a vested interest in keeping science healthy in Canada,” says Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy.
A recent PhD recipient from the University of Ottawa’s biology department, Gibbs helped organize last July’s Death of Evidence rally at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The mock funeral shed light on what was at the time fresh wounds to the scientific field.
Last April, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Nunavut lost its funding, closing the doors of a centre critical for the collection of data on air quality, climate change and the ozone.
The following month, the federal government announced it would cease funding the Experimental Lakes Area, a large operation that monitored everything from ecological systems to climate change.
The month after that, the government passed Bill C-38, also known as the “omnibus bill,” over one quarter of which had direct impacts on science-based decision making at the federal level. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act was ditched and its agency crippled; the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act was nixed; the Fisheries Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act and Species at Risk Act were weakened; several environmental monitoring programs were killed; the list goes on.
“You’d be hard pressed to find somebody that’s not affected by the cutbacks,” says Prof. Thomas Duck, who works with the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University.
He’s also a former PEARL researcher and will be participating in Halifax’s Stand Up for Science. On top of seeing his Arctic studies crumble, Duck has seen much of his high-tech laser radar work in Halifax disappear, and his beloved colleagues leave the country for opportunities elsewhere.
It’s not just the lack of funding that has dissuaded them; Duck, who has been vocal about the cutbacks, says the government has muzzled scientists, breaking off critical communication lines with the media and the general public.
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Although cuts to scientific research have occurred across many fields, Duck and Gibbs agree that environmental science has been the hardest hit.
“This government certainly hasn’t hidden the fact that one of the goals of their mandate is to make Canada an energy super player, and it’s suspected that a lot of the cutting of environmental monitoring was to help expand oil development without having to run into science saying that that’s not good,” says Gibbs.
Cuts to environmental monitoring have also led to a lack of publicly available evidence to inform discussions across Canada on the oil sands, says Duck.
“It appears now that our current government would like to be governing in the dark,” he says. “They would rather develop their policies based on something other than evidence. How they’re going to do that is anyone’s guess.”
The ramifications can already be felt on the ground, says Duck. In Nova Scotia, a local Environment Canada team that tracked mercury levels in the province was eliminated, potentially endangering the ecosystem and residents.
Duck says Environment Canada “is a really damaged organization” that could take a “generation or more” to rebuild.
Outside of the environmental field, Gibbs says Canada is reeling from the 2010 decision to eliminate the mandatory long form census. This May, when the first results of the National Household Survey since the change were released, statisticians lamented a lack of confidence in the numbers.
Whether they agree with these changes or not, Duck says it is difficult for provinces to counteract them. Many, like Nova Scotia, have little money for scientific research funding, a budgetary item historically taken up by the feds. However, Duck says provinces can impose their own safeguards against changes to environmental protection policy by putting their own regulatory acts and bodies into action.
Gibbs says Stand Up for Science serves as a message to the federal government that now is the time to correct some of its decisions before its too late.
The Halifax event, featuring Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Halifax NDP MP Megan Leslie, will take place at the Dalhousie Student Union Building (6163 University Ave.) on Sept. 16 at 1 p.m. Scientific research projects by Dalhousie faculty and students will also be on display.