News  Science advocates protest Harper government policies

Rally pushes for renewed emphasis on scientific research

To criticize the Harper administration’s alleged muzzling of federal scientists, and what demonstrators called an overall lack of evidence-based decision-making in the public policy arena, around 100 science advocates rallied in Montreal on Monday to “Stand Up for Science.”

Evidence for Democracy, a non-profit and non-partisan coalition of scientists and experts, organized “Stand Up for Science” rallies in cities across Canada. The rallies aim to increase public demand for science spending and the free dissemination of scientific knowledge, especially after the recent flurry of budget cuts to scientific institutions.

At the rally, signs bearing phrases such as “Use evidence to decide our future,” and “Children need fantasy, adults need evidence: bring it back!” were wielded by scientists, social justice group The Montreal Raging Grannies, and celebrity guests such as Marc Garneau, former Canadian astronaut and current Liberal Member of Parliament (MP), and Laurin Liu, former McGill student and current NDP MP.

The current federal government’s tactics hit especially close to home for Joelle Pelletier, a chemistry professor and biochemistry instructor at the Université de Montréal, who told The Daily that her laboratory work has been affected by budget cuts and gag orders.

“Budget cuts are atrocious because they prevent us from doing science,” said Pelletier. “But doing science and having it repressed – that is fundamentally worse and that is what I absolutely cannot condone.”

Science advocates have felt that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been at odds with the scientific community since his original election in 2006. As early as 2008, Environment Canada – the federal government agency responsible for researching and protecting the environment – implemented policies that limited federal scientists’ abilities to talk openly to the public about their work.

One notable example of budget cuts to scientific endeavours came in May 2012, when it was announced that federal funding was being withdrawn from the Experimental Lakes Area, even though it only cost $2 million. The move provoked outrage among both the scientific community and the general public.

Critics have also attacked Harper’s track record on tar sands and oil in Canada. In recent years, the federal government has pushed to create more pipelines, such as the Keystone XL pipeline. The Conservative government has also been accused of “green-washing” the oil sands – or, making them look more environmentally friendly than they are.

The 2012 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) rankings showed that Canada has dropped 25 positions on the EPI over the last 5 years, and is now on par with Mexico and Brazil – far below any European nation on the Index. Over the next 5 years, Canada’s position is expected to fall below another 25 to 30 nations.

The dramatic drop in international environmental standing has been the subject of attention of scientists and the general public – most of whom expressed frustration over Canada’s mediocre performance.

In an interview with The Daily, “Stand Up for Science!” volunteer Stephanne Taylor, who is currently pursuing a PhD in McGill’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, allocated most of the blame to governmental oversight.

“When your information does get out, in one way, shape, or form, the government is not listening to that information; they’re not basing their policy on the evidence,” says Taylor.

For many at the rally and critics of the Harper government’s policies on science, the restructuring of the National Research Council (NRC) is also cause for concern.

Pelletier pointed to the Harper government’s focus on applied instead of basic research, and expressed concern that this focus was an indication that the Harper government values the private investment sector over making headway with new research. She speculated that in 20 years, “There will be no advancements, no new technologies that will be able to feed into these applications,” which could severely diminish the scope of future Canadian research.

Taylor acknowledged that industrial projects were “economically viable and important,” but that the privatization of the NRC has gone too far in “consolidating the economic potential of this enormously robust, very successful national research center.”

Nancy Brown, a McGill graduate and a member of the advocacy group the Raging Grannies, shared a similar sentiment on Harper’s focus on commercial science.

“[Now] it’s about […] what can we develop that we can manufacture, that we can sell, that we can make money. That’s all they’re looking at,” said Brown. “The fundamental science that was once the domain of the National Research Council has been set aside.”

“I used to be proud to be Canadian,” said Pelletier, “but now it’s […] so embarrassing to admit.”