This is not an easy post for me to write. I don’t plan to talk about politics much on this blog. But, the case of Science vs. Politics is becoming quite an issue in Canada, so here it is.
The muzzling of scientists in Canada has been covered extensively by local and international media (see the list in my postscript). In addition, last year, it was discussed in a symposium during AAAS, the largest general science conference in the world. It also earned an editorial by the scientific journal Nature, calling the government to allow scientists to speak to the press. In the past few years, Canada lost its National Science Advisor, the approval process for projects requiring environmental impact assessments was shortened, and we almost lost Insite even with strong scientific evidence to support it – muzzling scientists really seems like just “the cherry on top.” *sigh*
Things quieted down for some time until recently the Canadian government asked scientists who are part of an international collaboration on Arctic research to sign an agreement. Instead of allowing scientists to discuss results from the research openly to the general public and the media, the new (compared to that in 2003) agreement prevents scientists from talking to anybody about their results unless they receive permission from the government. Andreas Münchow, a US physical oceanographer who is part of the collaboration, voiced his serious concerns on his blog. Rick Mercer (a bit like Canada’s John Stewart) had a rant about this:
(here is another one from last year if you are interested)
While the world is moving forward with open access and open science, Canada seems to be going backward with this latest development. Scientists in Canada have the unique opportunity to study many environmental issues that others don’t have access to – the Arctic, the oil sand, resources such as fisheries (1). Not only will research projects in these areas advance our understanding of the environment and allow us to develop new options and technologies, their results will directly impact our lives in the future – and presumably that is why many of these projects are government-funded. Without allowing the scientists to speak out and exchange ideas with others, we are limiting and maybe even damaging our ability to make Canada and this world a better place all together.
Is there no room for science in the political world? I understand that some research results, once released, might be considered conflicting to existing political decisions. But it should not be about being right or left, but about making the best for this nation called Canada that we all share and contribute to. In fact, these risks can be turned into great opportunities for the government to regain the trust of scientists and the public – simply by starting a conversation. The fact that Prime Minister Harper arranged a meeting to chat with Canadian Astronaut and International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield (unfortunately the public opportunity hasn’t quite worked out as intended) means that he knows how Canadian citizens value science. Then it wouldn’t be far-reaching to hope that he can sit down with concerned scientists and have a discussion about the muzzling issue. At the same time, scientists need to speak up – about the difficulties we encounter, absolutely, but we should also continue to inform and involve the public (including the politicians) in the discovery and the understanding of science. Two colleagues wrote excellent articles on this: Rees Kassen talked about how scientists should engage elected officials, so to slowly work up the importance of science in policy decision making. Ben Paylor, in his op-ed in Vancouver Sun, talked about the importance of improving the public’s understanding of science.
About two weeks ago, a few scientists started the Science Uncensored movement (a follow up of last year’s Death of Evidence rally). On one hand, I hope it will generate some publicity on the issue and increase the awareness. On the other hand, I wish things were better in Canada, that they didn’t need to take time away from their science to support this important cause. I sincerely hope that we can find a bridge between science and politics in Canada, and that soon we can see the government and scientists working together to create a better future for all Canadian citizens.
1: This was mentioned in Colin Schultz’s post regarding finding science communication allies in Canada.
Postscript 2: I do think science should remain impartial when it comes to political parties. There have been concerns in the States about aligning science too closely with political parties. I share such concerns.
- Bill Nye talks climate change, and why it’s a bad idea to muzzle Canadian scientists Metro News Ottawa, March 11, 2013
- Scientific Freedom in Canada – Keep it to yourself The Economist, March 7, 2013
- Editorial: Unmuzzle our scientists Edmonton Journal, February 18, 2013
- Why Canada’s scientists need our support Guardian, July 11, 2012
- Are Canada’s federal scientists being ‘muzzled’? CBC News, March 27, 2012
- Ottawa ‘muzzling’ scientists, panel tells global research community The Globe and Mail, February 17, 2012
- Canadian government is ‘muzzling its scientists’ BBC News February 17, 2012