Scientists vs. Harper

Science-ish looks at the evidence on the claim that the Tory government is anti-science

A protestor wearing a Grim Reaper costume stands on Parliament Hill during a rally on Tuesday July 10, 2012 in Ottawa to protest the federal government's cuts to science programs. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

When Science-ish heard about the “Death of Evidence” protest in Ottawa today, her first instinct was to jump on a plane and join the good fight. After all, Science-ish has spent the last year carefully documenting a number of incursions and abuses on science by governments—federal, provincial, and otherwise.

Over the phone, the University of Ottawa conference organizers told Science-ish that they are disturbed by what they believe is the government’s disdain for evidence. They also provided an impressive media backgrounder, obviously prepared by science nerds with a zest for evidence and footnoting. The alleged crimes included the scrapping of the mandatory long-form census, cutting the federal funding for Canada’s Ozone Network, closing the Experimental Lakes Area, as well as the elimination of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy and the position of National Science Advisor.

Such examples demonstrated “an erosion of the capacity of the federal government to actually collect evidence, and the capacity of civil society to bring evidence forward into public debate,” conference co-organizer Dr. Scott Findlay, said. This protest about the federal government’s anti-science stance seemed right on point.

But before creating nerdy “citation needed” placards and running to the Hill, Science-ish decided to take a breath and call scientists across the country to better understand what was happening. Did they really feel this government is systematically working against them, or was there a more nuanced story to be told?

They all pointed to some very questionable uses and abuses of evidence and the closure of key programs over the last six years of Tory power. Take the example of the Insite safe-injection site, where government-funded evidence has been systematically ignored. As Dr. Jim DunneMcMaster University professor and Chair in Applied Public Health, put it, “I’ve thought a lot about Insite, and to my mind, there’s overwhelming evidence of benefit, and virtually no evidence whatsoever of any harm at all. And so what do we do with that? Governments have been falling over themselves to distance themselves from it.”

At Maclean’s John Geddes—who has meticulously documented the government’s strained relationship with the scientific community over the years—even discovered RCMP-backed efforts to create science that contradicted the body of peer-reviewed research. An attack on science indeed.

But while rational, evidence-based decision making may be the ideal, one would be hard pressed to find governments that rely solely on science, and we probably wouldn’t want our politicians to operate that way anyway. As this recent comment in the British Medical Journal points out, “Although it may frustrate scientists when politicians are swayed by the possible electoral consequences of various policy options, few scientists (including us) would want to live in a society in which politicians completely ignored the views of those who have elected them as their representatives.” 

Besides, at least one episode in the series “scientists vs. Harper” seems to have been an invention of the media. To make sense of the census controversy, Science-ish called Philip Cross, former chief economic analyst at Statistics Canada. His departure was reported in much the same way as his predecessor’s, Munir Sheikh, was: an act of protest over the scrapping of the mandatory long-form census. But Cross maintains he was plugged into a pre-constructed narrative. “I had no opinion about the government and census. That was Munir’s problem,” he said. “My job was quality control and communications inside [Statscan].”

He went on to say he actually stepped down because he had been at the agency for 36 years, and felt it was time to go. “No one asked me about that, though. . . People said, ‘this Statscan guy left right after Munir, so it’s gotta be census-related.’ What I did say was that I did not agree with Statscan’s communications strategy, but that got grafted on to anti-census stuff.” He also added that a key factor in deciding to scrap the census—privacy issues that governments around the world are reexamining— got lost in some of the political debates. “I think it’s gotten to the point where we can’t have a rational debate about the census.” Maybe so.

Still, what about the alleged government slashing and burning of science spending? Some scientists had an interesting take on that, too, saying this discussion has become unnecessarily polarized, and that it glosses over some fundamental questions the Canadian public needs to address. For these scientists, it’s more about where the money is going than how much of it is being spent. In fact, as the chart below shows, more money is being spent than ever before on research, and research budgets are bigger than they were pre-Harper. (Although, there are now more scientists working in Canada—a 23 per cent increase between 2002 and 2007—so competition for dollars is now more intense.)

Chart by: NSERC

“The money is still there but priorities have changed,” said Alberta-based Tim Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health, Law and Policy, who has written extensively about commercialization in genetics and stem cell research. The government seems to be moving away from an emphasis on basic research and toward applied research and commercialization. Of course, “scientific inquiry has never been ‘pure’ ” and governments have always tried to nudge researchers in various directions, he added. But he has also found that “commercialization and links with industry have never been more intense.”

This raises issues about the research that’s coming out, said Caulfield. “There are documented harms [associated with industry-funded research], including the potential for data withholding, reduced collaborations, premature implementation of technologies and exaggerated claims of benefit.” There’s the question of public trust, too. “We know that the public trusts research that is truly independent. The closer the ties to industry, the less trust.” Plus, the private sector already focuses on applied research, and if the public sector doesn’t fund pure research, who will? “What if we really gut basic inquiry in a way that has long term consequences?” he asked.

In B.C., Dr. Gavin Stuart, dean of UBC’s school of medicine, also felt it’s not so much about the government’s anti-science tactics but shifting mores. When asked about Harper’s perceived hostility toward the scientific community, he said, “Scientists are passionate about what they do, and any change is seen as a threat and will invoke a reaction.” He added: “I think we are seeing some changes that scientists need to be thoughtful about—some changes may require some reaction, and some changes may require some adaptation.”

But that’s if scientists have a say at all. According to one of the protest organizers, Katie Gibbs: “There has been a general muzzling of scientists or trying to reduce the flow of science that gets to the public. For example, they [the federal government] didn’t renew the science advisor, and they send media people with scientists to conferences.” Her claim is born out by plenty of evidence. But is that a sign of the federal Conservatives’ anti-science stance, or part of an intense effort by this government to control the message—whether it be on science or immigration or anything else?

We need to keep a close eye on Harper and make sure his government doesn’t gut the research that voters and policymakers alike need to make informed decisions. But scientists who call the government anti-science are hardly helping their own cause: they risk polarizing the discussion and losing the trust of the public. That’s just as bad as a government that willfully ignores the evidence, and it glosses over a number of more nuanced questions that need addressing—in the spirit of scientific inquiry, and with an open mind.

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, the Medical Post and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the associate editor at the Medical Post. Got a tip? Seen something that’s Science-ish? Message her at j[email protected] or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto

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