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Over The Edge

Conservatives versus Evidence

Conservatives versus Evidence

by Tyson Kelsall, Culture Editor 

On 16 September rallies were held across Canada to argue the government’s treatment of science and scientists. This was not the first display of displeasure from the science community, nor will it be the last as events continue to unfold. The popular expression is that scientists are being “muzzled” in Canada, and it has caught the eye of the international world, including criticism from an editorial in the New York Times, which ties in nicely to Canada winning the international “Fossil of the Year” award for the last five straight years for its inaction towards climate change.

Over the Edge spoke with Dr. Katie Gibbs, biologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, the group that organized the “Stand Up For Science” rallies that occurred nationally in September.

 OTE: Can you talk about your involvement with the Standing Up For Science rallies?

KG: After the “Death By Evidence” rally last June, we thought instead of having just one big rally in Ottawa, we could have it other cities as well. So, we put a call out that we had this idea to have them all on one day.  Our hope was to have maybe three or four, but the response was very positive. We ended up having 18 cities. Even on the day of the rallies we were getting calls about adding cities to the list.  Personally, I sort of initiated them. There was the one in Ottawa, but I suggested having them across Canada; really it did require having local organizers.  We were able to offer them supports: such as poster and press release templates, suggestions, sound systems, talking points, and sometimes money.

 OTE: So, it was quite a bit more successful than you imagined at first?

 KG: Yeah exactly, there is no way I would have expected 18 cities, especially the response from smaller cities. We initially thought that we would have Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto and that kind of thing. But, it was really interesting to see all these tiny places like Salmon Arm, Fredericton, or Yellowknife, and I think that can be even more powerful. There’s lots of talk about how the media and government almost expect protests to happen in these big cities, whereas in smaller towns they do not as often organize rallies. When they happen in these towns also, you see people concerned about their fellow community members, and not just issues happening in Ottawa, it really brings it home.

OTE: What would you say that Harper is doing so differently? I have noticed he’s the target of many of these rallies and slogans like “Conservatives muzzles scientists,” than the more recent Liberal governments?

KG: Yeah, well it isn’t just this government. Their policies are probably the worst that I have seen when it comes to science, but the Liberals before them made drastic cuts as well. So we are really trying to make the rallies non-partisan, but the policies right now are really bad and we need to point that out. There are a few things, the first being the governments’ communication policy.  Government scientists are no longer able to talk to media. So, before there were only a few science journalists in Canada and when they were doing a science piece, they could just call-up the government scientists. The policy has changed so that now, scientists have been told that they have to forward any media requests to a representative. Sometimes, we’re seeing journalists never get called back, or getting called back one to two weeks later. Getting an answer in two weeks is pretty much considered not getting an answer at all [for many journalists]. Sometimes they are permitted to do an interview, and a communications/media minder will be on the phone as well. They will interrupt if they don’t like the question being asked, or they will cut off the answer if they do not like where the answer is going. We have also seen cuts from some really important institutions for gathering information, things like: the long form census, or environmental monitoring places like the Experimental Lakes Area. These are institutions that provide evidence that is essential to making good policy. Additionally, what we’ve seen is huge cuts to what we call “basic” or “fundamental” research. So, this is research that is sort of curiosity driven, research that is not trying to get to particular outcome. For people who are not in science this might make sense. However, it is not really the way science works. Looking back historically, many scientific discoveries that we use every day, like cellphones, MRI and laser surgery, etc. came from this basic curiosity-driven research. This is sort of the way the mind works. We see much more innovation and success when scientists are given that free-reign to use their imagination, rather than trying to direct it somewhere. What we have seen is a complete gutting of funding for that type of research. The funding that remains has shifted completely to things like industry partnerships and that kind of research.

OTE: So, you talked about industrial-pacts and also convenience – do you think that Harper is directing science heavily by his own ideologies? Are these short-term economic gain and resource extraction, things like this? 

KG: Well, [Harper] has not been very secretive about wanting to turn Canada into a type of energy superpower and promote resource extraction in general. Certainly, some of the cuts we have seen have been towards environmental research and environmental monitoring. I do think part of that is pre-emptively avoiding any inconvenient facts that may arise. My viewpoint is exactly that if we want to ramp up resource extraction, we actually need more research. We need to know the effects of certain resource extractions. We need to know the effects of a potential oil spill. The science will not tell you whether that is good or bad idea, that is really a value-based decision, but we need to know exactly what the consequences of that increased resource extraction will be. Where, we what we have seen is a complete gutting of it.

OTE: This denial of science: what do you think it means to slowing down or stopping climate change?

 KG: Well, certainly the closing down of places like PEARL, a northern research station that monitors the climate in the north is a concern. It is just shocking that things like this are being shut down. Most people seem to agree that climate change is one of our biggest concerns, especially in Canada and in the north.

OTE: You mention in Canada and the north it is a big concern, but when talking about climate change does it not become a global issue and not just a national one when talking about science funding? 

KG: Yeah and there are two kinds of issues; one being actually doing science, and one being listening to the scientists’ findings. I think other countries they do not have the gutting of science, they may still have that other part of not doing anything with the science, whereas in Canada it is taking a step further and cancelling the ability to have scientific research. 

OTE: Scientists are stereotypically known as introverts – geniuses doing their work in the lab – when is the last time scientists had to take this kind of action? Do you think it takes something serious for this to happen?

KG: I have not really heard about scientists rallying like this in Canada. The last time I can think of is in the 1970s around Nuclear Proliferation. Scientists prefer not to get involved; we are very passionate about research and it is a never-ending job. But we have gotten to a point where we’ve realized if we’re not going to stand up for it, then nobody is. We’re the ones doing the research; we really know why it is important to everyone and not just scientists.  As an additional point, I really think the next generations of scientists are totally comfortable with it though. They are on Twitter, they are on Facebook, you know, they kind of have these communication skills. I think it is interesting how this dynamic, and this stereotype might start changing. 

Since the end of the rallies work has began behind-the-scenes. Dr. Gibbs, along with other scientists are working together and speaking to people about what kind of policies need to be changed.  Will Canada become a leader in climate science, or continue to collect its’ annual Fossil of the Year award? Will Stephen Harper and the Conservatives become more concerned about fundamental scientific research or just the type that in convenient for them? If past actions say anything, then probably not, but Katie Gibbs’ rallies and speeches have shown there is citizen support for evidence in our democracy.