Science vs. Politics in Canada? Is this the only way?

13 Mar
2013 March 11 Featured Image

Must it be a tug of war between science and politics? (Image credit toffehoff)

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 blogRick 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 1: HT to Artem Kaznatcheev, who sent me the Rick Mercer video and suggested that I write about it. I also participated in a discussion on this issue on Chad Atkin‘s G+ page.

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.

Postscript 3:

Postscript 4: Media coverage of the issue


6 Responses to “Science vs. Politics in Canada? Is this the only way?”

  1. Sarah Boon March 13, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    Good summary Theresa! Other readings on this topic at

    • Terrific T March 13, 2013 at 10:28 pm #

      Great post Sarah! After reading my summary, readers can head over to your post to get more details.

  2. jerryhaigh March 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    A colleague of mine developed an idea, wrote the grant, got industry support and filled in all the boxes. He had to get a little support from one government agency. End result? He has no rights on any of the results. He cannot publish or speak about them, even informally, let alone at industry or scietific meetings, without the okay from that agency. I suggested to him that he tell them to take a hike (I wans’t quite that polite). He can’t as he needs to do the work and the industry needs it badly. Thank goodness I have retired. No more of that sort of crap for me.

  3. Chad Atkins (@chemchad) March 14, 2013 at 1:10 am #

    This topic always leaves my brain in a mush.

    On one hand, I want to speak as a citizen – a citizen that has grown up appreciating Canada as a leader in environmental issues and as a nation that cherishes it’s natural habitat. Being a citizen, I believe that my interests are shared by fellow members of my community and my Member of Parliament will express these interests on our behalf at the national level.

    On the other hand, I want to speak as a scientist – a scientist that demands the proper dissemination of publicly-funded research, such that decisions can be made accordingly and a course of action can be plotted to demonstrate how science is *applied* to maintaining the things we cherish most about the country. Being a scientist, however, I believe that communication problems still exist and the general public isn’t as well informed as they should be.

    That brings the whole thing full circle, because now I’m a citizen again and suddenly my fellow citizens aren’t worried about the same things I am because they’re not aware that when bill C-38 passes that hundreds of waterways will no longer be protected from industrial pollution and the lake they take their children to every summer might not be suitable to swim in anymore.

    Yes, this is all melodrama, but it’s happening now.


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