Why Canada needs a science watchdog

Why Canada needs a science watchdog

The recent series of pieces at iPolitics on Canadian science and science policy bears witness to a growing concern about the health of public interest science.

One such source of concern is the increasing imposition of constraints on the ability of government scientists to communicate their science to the public. Concerns about muzzling have been voiced by academic institutions like the Canadian Association of University Teachers, media associations like the Canadian Science Writers Association, professional organizations like the Royal Society of Canada and even the prestigious international science journal Nature.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada recently released the first results of a survey of over 4,000 government scientists, 90 per cent of whom reported that they were prevented from speaking publicly about their scientific work. The evidence of muzzling is sufficiently persuasive to have prompted an investigation by the federal Information Commissioner into the legality of government communication policies, following a petition by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic.

A second source of concern is Canada’s reduced capacity for science in the public interest. Recent data from Statistics Canada indicate that in 2012-2013, for the fourth year in a row, federal science and technology funding has declined, with most science-based departments and agencies experiencing cuts. One might argue that in these trying times of fiscal restraint, even science must do its bit. But despite a more difficult economic situation south of the border, President Obama’s 2014 budget plan still included a 9.2 per cent increase ($143 billion) in federal non-defense R&D spending.

Reduced capacity for science in the public interest reflects both ashrinking budget and a shift in priorities away from basic scientific research. The 2013 budget provided $37 million to the three research councils for industry-dedicated programs, effectively replacing funds lost to deficit reduction measures. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Council’s (NSERC) Major Resources Support Program, which traditionally provided much of the infrastructure and equipment for basic research, has been suspended. And earlier this year, the National Research Council (NRC) was restructured to serve as a “concierge” facility for industry.

A third concern is what appears to be the selective elimination or reduction of institutions and programs engaged in the collection of scientific information on the environmental and health impacts of economic development. Shuttered or defunded programs and institutions include the Experimental Lakes Area, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy, among dozens of others.

A fourth concern is the apparent indifference to evidence-based decision making. In August 2012, responding to questions about the Northern Gateway pipeline, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asserted that “the only way that governments can handle controversial projects of this manner is to ensure that things are evaluated on an independent basis scientifically, and not simply on political criteria.” In March 2013, Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver advanced the view that President Obama was — on the Keystone XL issue, at least — “driven by facts“, adding “that’s what drives us as well.”

The evidence suggests otherwise. The mandatory long-form census that provided critical information to governments and businesses alike was replaced with the voluntary National Household Survey (NHS), which, it was argued, would deliver similar quality data — even though all the experts said otherwise. Recently, Statistics Canada slapped a disclaimer on the first results of the survey and data from many municipalities across Canada were withheld due to concerns about data quality.

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