Scitech  Political science

Why government defunding of environmental research matters

On July 10, approximately 2,000 scientists marched down Ottawa’s Wellington Street to Parliament Hill in a mock funeral of evidence in Canada under the Harper government. A Grim Reaper accompanied the crowd, and a wooden coffin representing the “body of evidence” was carried onto the steps of Parliament Hill.

Speakers accused Harper and the conservative government of only supporting scientific evidence favourable for their causes.

The policies that inspired this rally include budget reductions to research programs at Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, decisions to close major national and social science research institutions such as the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area, and the closing of The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka, Nunavut.

Scientists believe that the budget cuts reflect the Harper government’s attempts to suppress key sources of scientific data that would refute certain pro-industry and anti-environmental policies.

The importance of this event was not only in its direct message to the government, but also in its influence on the public. “The turnout was way higher than I was expecting and the media coverage was incredible,” Gibbs told The Daily in an interview. “The main goal was to make sure the public knew what was going on. Previously, people had reported on single instances, but I don’t think anybody had really put all of the pieces together to show the … general attack on science and evidence.”

The government has defended its cost-reducing measures; it has stated that the budget cuts are in the name of deficit reduction and efficiency. Furthermore, a $1.1 billion investment in research, development, and innovation is to be made over the next five years.

“Budget 2012 enhanced federal government support for leading edge research including $500 million – over five years – for the Canada Foundation for Innovation,” Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear said in an email to the CBC.

Yet the protesters’ argument lies in the diversion of funds from scientific areas that benefit the environment to those that further the Harper government’s economic agenda.

“[The government] didn’t respond directly to [the rally],” Gibbs said. “They put out a press release on the day of the rally, talking about their funding to science, but not actually discussing the points of the rally at all. They mostly focused on what the dollar amount to funding and technology has been, but a lot of that money…[has] shifted a lot. It’s moved away from basic funding into commercializing products for the market.”

The government has also refrained from commenting on the rally’s argument that federal budget cuts have been directed strategically, with a bias against certain research programs.

“It was mostly programs that do environmental monitoring … that they cut,” said Gibbs. She also stated that the the government failed to address “the muzzling issue, [where] they didn’t let government scientists speak to the public about their research.”

If environment-monitoring organizations are left ill-equipped to continue their operations after funding cuts, it could translate into a global lack of readiness to deal with potential environmental degradation and resulting environmental disasters.

“These were really important monitoring programs that were cut, things that monitor air quality and water quality, climate change,” said Gibbs. “Its even more worrisome that we’re not even going to have the data to know if there is an environmental problem. Forget dealing with the problem, we won’t even know about the problem because we don’t have the data anymore.”

Considering the large scale of these research programs, it doesn’t seem feasible for them to attempt to secure funding elsewhere.

“A few of them have been trying to get funding from universities, but it’s not looking very good right now,” said Gibbs. “Most universities are cash strapped themselves right now, so they don’t have the extra money to take on these huge monitoring tasks.” Gibbs stressed that since non-governmental funding bodies are not able to commit to a consistent level of funding, this could hinder the institutions’ abilities to maintain ongoing research.

On some level, these budget cuts will determine the opportunities available to university graduates entering the job market as well.

“Most of the cuts we were focusing [on don’t really] affect the undergraduate level,” stated Gibbs. “But they affect the job prospects for being a scientist in Canada, so I think young people might be thinking twice about whether it makes sense about going into a science field.”

Gibbs added, “I know a lot of the grad students …. that were part of this [rally] … are thinking about jobs outside of Canada, simply because there are no prospects to getting a job within their field in Canada.” If  defunding science – especially specific areas of science – continues, these consequences will only worsen.

Some organizing members of the Death of Evidence rally, along with Katie Gibbs, are currently working on forming an organization to promote these issues full time in the coming months, and hope to launch this venture by mid-October this year. For further information on the government policies that inspired this rally, visit www.deathofevidence.ca