Government funded science is necessary. The government is the only entity with the resources to keep track of the long-term and widespread trends in population growth, pollution, climate change, poverty and so on. The government must therefore take some of our tax money and pay scientists to do research on issues that might lead to what is good for its citizens, whether they approve of it or not. As our Prime Minister says, “vital statistics are critical. You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
Any ruling political party will face the question of how best to fund and engage with science. While all parties agree that science is valuable, they manage it differently because they have to make different trade-offs based on their values and ideologies.
Suppose science values truth, society values well-being, government values security and industry values wealth. The way these four elements interact determine how their values are balanced. If you value wealth, you might focus on promoting science that is profitable. If you value well-being, you might focus on medicine and technology. This is further complicated by the changing constraints on the resources of time, money, materials and humans.
Many people have argued that the current Conservative government has traded away too much science in the interest of wealth and other party interests. Followers of this blog will already know what I’m talking about. Here are some of the accusations.
Climate scientists are not allowed to speak about climate change, to the media or the public. The reason given was that meteorologists are not qualified to speak about climate change. With no one speaking about climate change, media coverage has gone down 80%. (See also here, here and here). This supposedly profits Harper because with no one to stand in his way, he won’t have to reduce emissions (and profit) in factories, or worry too much about the damage caused by the Alberta oil sands. Some evidence of this attitude is the fact that the conservative government has pulled us out of the Kyoto protocol. We are a top-ten polluting country worldwide, and we have turned our backs on one of the most important international agreements ever made to fight global climate change.
Scientists at the Canadian Institute of Health Research must now find matching funds from industrial sources to be eligible for grants. This makes it much harder to do basic research. And it makes things especially difficult for those who study Aboriginal health issues, as there aren’t many organizations willing to invest in that research.
A report from the Broadbent institute shows that the Canadian Revenue Agency appears to be targeting left-leaning charitable organizations that focus on environmental issues, while right-leaning charities escape.
Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment has found that Canada is delaying any monitoring of oil sands pollution, as well as creating misleading information in previous reports. Also the federal committee responsible for Canada’s climate has not met in three years.
Seven of the nine most important libraries belonging to the departments of oceans and fisheries were shut down to save money by digitizing the data. But only a tiny fraction was actually digitized. The rest of the books were thrown in dumpsters, burned or sent to landfills.
Here is a partial list of some of the other things that have been shut down:
- Environmental Emergency Response Program
- Urban Wastewater Program
- Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
- Smokestacks Emissions Monitoring Team
- Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission
- National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy
- Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, Winnipeg Office
- Municipal Water and Wastewater Survey
- Environmental Protection Operations
- Action Plan on Clean Water
- Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL)
- Sustainable Water Management Division
- Environmental Effects Monitoring Program
- Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan
- Canadian Centre for Inland Waters
- Clean Air Agenda
- Air Quality Health Index
- Species at Risk Program
- Weather and Environmental Services
- Substance and Waste Management
- Ocean Contaminants & Marine Toxicology Program
- Experimental Lakes Area
- Centre for Offshore Oil & Gas Energy Research
- Conservation and Protection Office (L’anse au Loup, NL)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Trepassey, NL)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Rigolet, NL)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Burgeo, NL)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Arnold’s Cove, NL)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Baddeck, NS)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Canso, NS)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Sheet Harbour, NS)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Woodstock, NB)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Port Hood, NS)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Wallace, NS)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Kedgwick, NB)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Montague, PEI)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Inuvik, NT)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Rankin Inlet, NU)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Clearwater, BC)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Comox, BC)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Hazelton, BC)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Quesnel, BC)
- Conservation and Protection Office (Pender Harbour, BC)
- Species-at-Risk Program
- Habitat Management Program
- DFO Institute of Ocean Sciences (Sidney, BC)
- Freshwater Institute – Winnipeg
- Oil Spill Counter-Measures Team
- Water Pollution Research Lab (Sidney, BC)
- Water Pollution Research Lab (Winnipeg, MB)
- Water Pollution Research Lab (Burlington, ON)
- Water Pollution Research Lab (Mont-Joli, QC)
- Water Pollution Research Lab (Moncton, NB)
- Water Pollution Research Lab (Dartmouth, NS)
- St. Andrew Biological Station
- Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility
- Ice Information Partnership
- First Nations and Inuit Health
- Fertilizer Pre-Market Efficacy Assessment program
- Enforcement of Product of Canada label
- RADARSAT Constellation Mission
- Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuarapik Research station
- Kluane Lake Research Station
- Bamfield Marine Science Centre
- Microfungal Collection and Herborium
- Biogeoscience Institute
- Coriolis II research Vessel
- OIE Laboratory for Infectious Salmon Anaemia
- Canadian Phycological Culture Centre
- Polaris Portable Observatories for Lithospheric Analysis and Research
- Mount Megantic ObservatoryInshore Rescue Boat Program
- Species at Risk Atlantic Salmon Production Facilities
- Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization
- At-Sean Observer Programs
- Pacific Forestry Centre, Satellite Office (Prince George, BC)
- Canadian Centre for Remote Sensing
- Pulp and Paper Green Transformation Program
- Isotopes Supply Initiative
- Clean Energy Fund
- Sustainable Development Technology Canada – Next Generation Biofuels Fund
- Program of Energy Research and Development
- Pacific Forestry Centre
- Astronomy Interpretation Centre – Centre of the Universe
- MRI research, Institute Biodiagnostics
- Polar Continental Shelf Progam
- Aquatic Ecotoxicology, Aquatic and Crop Resource Development
- Molecular Biochemistry Laboratory, Aquatic and Crop Resource Development
- Plant Metabolism Research, Aquatic and Crop Resource Development
- Human Health Therapeutics research program
- Environmental Risks to Health program
- Substance Use and Abuse program
- First Nations and Inuit Primary Health Care program
- Health Infrastructure Support for First Nations and Inuit program
- Interim Federal Health Program
- Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration
- Environmental Knowledge, Technology, Information, and Measurement program
- Science, Innovation and Adoption program
- Rural and Co-operatives Development program
- Centre for Plant Health (Sidney, BC)
- National Aboriginal Health Organization
- First Nations Statistical Institute
- Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth
- Smoke Stacks Emissions Monitoring Team
- National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy
- Environmental Protections Operations Compliant Promotion Program
- Sustainable Water Management Division
- Environmental Effects Monitoring program
- Fresh Water Institute
- Canadian Centre for Inlands Waters (Burlington)
- World Ozone and Ultraviolet Radiation Data Centre
- Environmental Emergencies Program
- Parks Canada
- Montreal Biosphere
- Statistics Canada
- Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences
- Laboratory for the Analysis of Natural and Synthetic Environmental Toxicants
- National Ultrahigh-field NMR Facility for Solids
- IsoTrace AMS Facility
- Canadian Phycological Culture Centre
- Canadian Resource Centre for Zebrafish Genetics
- Neuroendocrinology Assay Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario
- Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding
- Portable Observatories for Lithospheric Analysis and Research Investigating (POLARIS) (Ontario)
- Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics
- Brockhouse Institute for Materials Research
- St. John’s Centrifuge Modelling Facility
- Quebec/Eastern Canada high field NMR facility
- Félix d’Hérelle Reference Center for Bacterial Viruses
- The Compute/Calcul Canada
- Center for Innovative Geochronology
- Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences
- Pacific Northwest Consortium Synchrotron Radiation Facility
- Centre for Molecular and Materials Science at TRIUMF
- Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research
- Canadian Cosmogenic Nuclide Exposure Dating Facility
- Atlantic Regional Facilities for Materials Characterization
- The Canadian SuperDARN/PolarDARN facility
This is all pretty frightening. I presented some of this material to a class I taught at the University of Toronto on Natural Science and Social Issues. After getting in contact with Margrit Eichler, president of Scientists for the Right to Know (SRK), three of my students (Emma Pask, Adra Greig and Ally Mushka) decided to form a student group (Students for the Right to Know). On January 23rd, the four of us organized a workshop called “Better Science Policy in Canada.” The question that motivated us was, assuming that the state of Canadian science policy is not perfect, what can historians and philosophers of science do?
If nothing else I thought we might be able to provide some perspective. For example, Harper says funding applied science will increase economic prosperity. Historians and philosophers of science can say whether funding applied science really is more profitable than pure science. We can also provide cases and arguments that make clear their mutual dependence. For instance, if pure science is about knowing, and applied science is about doing, then notice that knowing enables us to do, and doing helps us know. We can point out that the distinction between pure and applied science has always been political. And finally, we can argue that if we focus too much on applied science Canadian innovation will be hampered as our top scientists lose their grip on the pure science being developed elsewhere. This would happen no matter how much money we gave to applied science departments.
There are many other areas of the science policy debate where clarity is needed. If scientists are having their centers shut down in piecemeal fashion all over the country, then there will be many sad and angry scientists. But without a comprehensive historical and conceptual view on what the current government is doing and why it’s wrong, it is difficult to create better science policy for the future.
So we organized a workshop that brought together philosophers and historians of science with scientists and politicians and pizza. Before I summarize it, I want to make it clear that despite the narrative structure and concluding remarks at the bottom, this is not a story with an ending. Whatever government we have in power, there will always be a difficult trade-off between science and government. I invited more than a dozen Conservative MPs to the workshop to defend or elaborate their party’s policies. While none of them came, I still hold out hope of hearing a Conservative voice in this discussion.
Margrit Eichler (Professor Emerita of Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Social Justice Education, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and of the European Academy of Sciences), was the first to speak. Margrit discussed a number of worrying actions the government has taken from April 2006 to the present. Infractions against scientific progress are collected (with links) on the timeline of the SRK website. Margrit justifies her use of terminology like “muzzling,” “libraricide,” and “the war on science” by arguing that we need to make people aware. Currently, government scientists cannot express public dissent, and this is a problem. Further, if Bill C-51 passes, then even non-government employed citizens who express certain kinds of dissent might be classified as terrorists (see also here). Margrit’s position is that we are not bullying innocent people by raising awareness of a bully. To raise awareness, sometimes we need inflammatory language.
Curtis Forbes (U of T, Ph.D. candidate, History and Philosophy of Science) replied with a talk concerning social media and government policy. He reminded us that Harper became Prime Minister in the same year that Twitter was created, at a time when YouTube was only one year old. Harper is therefore the first Canadian Prime Minister to face modern social media. Twitter faux pas explode overnight and require resources to overcome. Any government is therefore going to need a policy to deal with them. If a government requires scientists on the payroll not to express their opinions on Twitter, we should not call this “muzzling.” Such a policy will necessarily form part of a broader media strategy that protects the integrity of government function.
Margrit agreed that while any government will need a media communications strategy, the problem we now face is not one about scientists and social media. As mentioned above, scientists can’t communicate to other scientists, whether in person, through the proper scientific channels without government intervention, or to science journalists who want to report on their work.
Christianne Stephens, Pamela Wong, Amrit Phull, Edward Fenner and Rebecca Moore all presented case studies that illustrate other specific issues.
The first three speakers discussed environmental and aboriginal issues. They also shared a general conclusion: First Nations people are too often ignored, their health put at risk, and their knowledge overlooked or clumsily duplicated/approximated because of current scientific policies and practices.
Christianne (York University, Assistant professor, Anthropology) works with the Walpole Island First Nation (see photo), where nearby chemical contamination from spills and legal discharges is a serious issue. Christianne illustrated the very different portrayals of the environmental situation by scientific and First Nation sources. What is a catastrophic event with far-reaching consequences for First Nations residents is an off-hand technical remark for others.
Recent funding cuts to programs looking at aboriginal health, suicide, sexual abuse, depression, and so on make it difficult to collect and analyze health data from those communities. There are also funding structure changes that have made it more difficult to research Aboriginal issues. Finally, for Aboriginal people to go to graduate school they also have to secure an equal amount of money from industrial sources to match government money (part of Harper’s plan to make Canada more industrial). Christianne concluded:
These are just some of the current issues threatening the collection, circulation and analysis of data on the health and well-being of Canada’s First Nations peoples. The rapidly devolving situation precipitated by current changes in federal legislation and policy enacted unilaterally without consultation, dishonour indigenous peoples’ rights to own, control, access and possess information about themselves… And they also represent a blatant attack on rights to culture, identity and health, as outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As such these actions warrant a swift and unified response by indigenous leaders, researchers, academics and social justice advocates.
Some of these conclusions were echoed by Pamela Wong (U of T, Ph.D. Candidate, Environment and Ecology), who discussed the differences between the way researchers study trends in polar bear populations and the way Inuit trackers and hunters do the same. Currently there is a lack of communication and collegiality between researchers and the Inuit trackers who aid them. Members of both groups would profit by working more closely together to achieve mutual aims. One way to make sure this happens is to share the results of research back to the communities that made it possible.
Amrit Phull (Waterloo, recent M.A. graduate, Architecture) independently supported the same idea through her work on subarctic Cree communities around James Bay. The difference between government research and traditional aboriginal knowledge is massive. Again, we should see this as an opportunity to explore new epistemic meeting places in an expansive middle ground.
During the panel discussion, Amrit suggested that new technologies be used to evoke emotional reactions to social issues. Public awareness about science policy depends heavily on getting people educated about the interaction between science, society and government, which could be facilitated through apps, smart spaces, and so on. This could supply crucial decibels to the public voice on science policy issues.
Another idea is to appeal to our sense of moral responsibility via apps and other technologies. Many people do care how their actions impact the environment and society and giving them a simple way to track the consequences of their lifestyle choices can help them to manage the damage they cause. Such technology exists in rudimentary form already, but it should be improved and promoted, especially since it does not require political change.
Edward Fenner (York University, recent M.A. graduate, Science and Technology Studies) discussed a different source of innovation: military science. His case study was Cold War science in America. During this period the distinction between pure and applied science crumbled. Some helpful morals Edward drew were comparative: Canada has much room for improvement with respect to innovation and science communication. In terms of innovation, we spend a great deal of money just to catch up to our neighbour in the south. Pure research can be done cheaply, if we’re smart. (Which we are). In terms of communication, we already have good resources (like SRK and Evidence for Democracy), we just need more effort.
Rebecca Moore (U of T, recent Ph.D. graduate, History and Philosophy of Science) discussed funding for genetics research and the relation between GMOs, patenting, and industry. She highlighted problems with the view that science is important because it is profitable. This treats science as another cog in the political-industrial wheel, which it isn’t.
Bruce Hyer, Deputy Leader of the Green Party (and himself a scientist) had several important issues to raise with respect to science policy in Canada. First, MPs have less control now than they did in the past to raise bills and issues of their own, and to vote according to their own conscience. “Most MPs are robots,” as he put it, programmed by their parties. Second, and more importantly, the electoral system itself is partially to blame. We need proportional representation instead of the first-past-the-post system. When the percentage of seats won comes closer to the percentage of votes won, larger parties will have to take smaller ones like his more seriously. And in terms of science policy, that would be a good thing. You can see some of the Green party’s policies here.
One MP who is not a robot is Ted Hsu, official science critic for the Liberal party. Ted began by giving a general introduction to the relationship between evidence and politics. While political policies are obviously not derivable from scientific evidence, the quality and availability of the evidence will affect the quality of political policies. One extremely important piece of evidence that we as Canadians need in order to make good policy decisions is the census. The mandatory longform census was abolished by the Conservative government in 2010. No longer do social scientists have the information they need to study groups of Canadians in relation to the rest, and no longer can we as Canadians make informed decisions about how social and economic issues have been addressed during this government’s tenure. The Conservatives replaced the longform census with a voluntary shortform questionnaire. The 2006 longform census had a response rate of 93.5%, while the 2011 shortform questionnaire only enjoyed a response rate of 68.6% (with fewer questions, and more confusing data).
Ted discussed the private members bill he introduced that would reinstate the mandatory longform census (Bill-C626). On Wednesday February 4th this bill was struck down in its second reading, even though it had the support of the opposing parties.
In a video contribution, Marty Cooke (Waterloo, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Legal Studies and the School of Public Health and Health Systems and the Department of Pharmacy) replied to Ted’s proposal. One way for Conservatives to keep the census away is to emphasize privacy concerns and intrusiveness. To curtail that conversation, Cooke believes that we should consider funding a project (perhaps under Statistics Canada) to data mine public sources of information as a way of replacing all or some of the census. We give up basic information to public repositories all the time and we don’t cry about it. If such a system were adopted, we wouldn’t have to provide information twice; for example, once to the Ministry of Transportation and once to the census. And there would be no possibility of incurring jail time for not filling out the form every five years. Marty isn’t suggesting that secret government agents get your relationship status off Facebook, he’s just calling statisticians to do what they already do with available information. The problem is sorting through it, which would be a huge task. But this is a practical problem that other countries (with similar systems in place) have already solved. Marty agrees, however, that for now we should try to reinstate the mandatory longform census while we discuss how to get information about Canadians in a way that doesn’t violate our desire for privacy.
Whatever avenue we take, we need something like the census. The SRK has recently engaged a number of other organizations into a network, and one of its first efforts was to start a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #ItMakesCensus. At the time of writing, this hashtag has reached 604 239 people (keyhole.co). It sparked a number of articles in newspapers, and gained a great deal of public support (see here, here, here, here and here). Thanks to Ted’s bill, many more Canadians are now aware of the value of the census.
OPEN PANEL DISCUSSION
A number of important points emerged in the discussion that followed the talks. I asked Ted whether he would encourage more scientists to run for a position in government. He said yes, but emphasized that this is always a tough decision to make since it is hard to return to academic science after leaving it. It is perhaps better to learn about local politicians, find one that you support, and become involved in his or her election campaign.
Jim Brown (U of T, Professor of Philosophy) pointed out that the issue is not only one of Canadian science policy, but also international policy. Many of our international trade agreements are what really determine how we regulate things like pharmaceutical drugs and intellectual property, and changing these policies would not be as straightforward as in domestic matters like the census. One big obstacle is profit. The current arrangement increases the wealth of a small number of people and corporations. As they stand to lose a great deal, they will do all they can to oppose changes to the offending policies. It is possible to overcome the influence of the wealthy few with enough public support, but doing so isn’t easy.
To get enough public support, a higher level of scientific literacy in Canada is needed. Documentaries, newspapers, academic journals and social media work well to spread the message, but people can’t appreciate the damage done by the Conservatives without knowing something about the general state of scientific knowledge and its role in government decision-making. There are television shows and podcasts dedicated to general science education, but people have to seek these out. Nightly news programs would be a good place for short snippets of basic science education, but that’s impossible given the current newsroom practice of limiting content to whatever has happened today that is relevant for our daily lives. This means we mostly hear about cancer cures or cancer scares in the science and technology segment of the news. We might try to train scientists to speak to the public themselves, but since communicating results to laypeople is not something that a scientist needs in order to get a job, it is hard to force them to think about it at the early stages of their career.
Any good philosophical treatment of the relationship between science, government and society will have to be abstract and make many assumptions. I once tried to make a diagram representing the flow of money (black arrows) and information (green arrows), as well as government media blockages that currently stop the flow of that information (red circles). It looked like this before I gave up:
Just because it’s difficult to characterize and understand these abstract relationships doesn’t mean it’s impossible. There are some things that only emerge at this highest level of analysis that might be missed at lower levels, like the conflict between the values of science, society and government. The job of philosophers is not always to suggest concrete roads to improvement but to show what our ideals are to begin with. What can we say about an ideal state? How should it be arranged? This has been an important pursuit from Plato’s Republic to Rawl’s A Theory of Justice. We need to consider things from this abstract level to understand the nature of these basic and important relationships.
On the other hand, such a pursuit is toothless without case studies because there are features of the relationships between science, government and society that only emerge when we consider cases. For example, research in Baffin Island on Viking settlers of Canada has been shut down, suggests the Fifth Estate, because it conflicts with Harper’s idea of Canada as a proud British colony with a battle history that begins in the 19th century. This makes it clear that it’s not just data on environmental and demographic trends that is in danger, but all kinds of government-funded research, including anthropology.
Therefore, top-down and the bottom-up methods must meet in the middle. No one person can see how to overhaul and reconstruct science policy. We need philosophers, politicians, scientists, historians, engineers, economists and everyone else. Aristotle argued that politics is the most important science because it determines how the rest are done. People from all across the country in all professions should contribute to issues like these, with the enthusiasm it is due.
One last thought. Whenever I ask someone clever what we can do to improve Canadian science policy, I receive the same answer: raise awareness. People are always talking about awareness. I sometimes find this unsatisfying. Awareness won’t bring the census back. It’s true that as someone who helped to organize a workshop, I might have made a few more people aware. Some of those people might organize things of their own. Hopefully they will vote, and they will get others to vote. And we will all use social media. And if this balloons, newspeople will pay attention because sudden civil unrest is newsworthy. And when things are in the news, politicians who want to appeal to popular opinion take notice. Enough people and enough news makes a difference. Just look at the Arab Spring.
However “raise awareness” is still unsatisfying because it provides neither a material nor a formal answer to the problem. (Just like how overthrowing an unjust dictator doesn’t tell you how to run the country in the future). It doesn’t tell us what policies to change or adopt, or how to restructure the policy making process. Of course, awareness is a necessary prerequisite for finding those answers. Without awareness, no one cares, and when no one cares, nothing happens.
For these reasons public discussions like the one we had on January 23rd are crucial: they raise awareness while providing an opportunity to discuss material and formal solutions to problems. Turning from mere awareness, here are a few constructive recommendations I think we agreed on, and I think we should discuss.
- Improve science education and journalism to increase scientific literacy.
- Reinstate the census or something like it.
- Require the government to be transparent and self-consistent about its scientific policies.
- Put scientists in charge of large government funding agencies like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
- As much as possible, allow arm’s length organizations to “audit” the government and its science unhindered.
- Foster public and interdisciplinary discussion about values. (What do we even want from science policy?).
- Allow scientists to speak freely (at least to other scientists).
- Ensure that evidence used in political decision-making is made available to the public (within reason).
- Increase government recognition for basic science, even when it does not offer an immediate economic pay-off.
Conservatives and opposition party members alike can admit the merit of each of these recommendations. What remains is to make these and other recommendations practically realizable through good faith conversation grounded in evidence and shared Canadian values. To do this, we need our evidence back, and our values taken seriously.