“Get Science Right” Panel Shows How Gov’t is Getting it Wrong

Early morning Fog - Lake Temagami, Fall 2008 - photo credit Zainab Amadahy

The news has recently been reporting some alarming stories regarding the “attack on science” that Canada is experiencing.

From books being burned to the Fishery and Oceans library closures, climate and environmental concerns are becoming more frequent in the news.

On January 6, a protester interrupted Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a conference in Vancouver, holding a sign that said, “Climate Justice Now.” So, what was our Prime Minister’s response to this citizen’s concern?

“Wouldn’t be B.C. without it,” Prime Minister Harper said with a smirk.

It’s the same attitude of mockery reserved for the global-warming arguments, and an accepted reaction to joke about Canadians who are genuinely concerned about what the government is doing to this country. This is where it stops, where hearsay will be separated from fact, and where science is put before politics.

Despite the overwhelming protest and concern of scientists, last year, The National Research Council became a concierge to industry. What this means is that, instead of a focus on basic science, funding is provided to more large-scale business- and industry-driven research.

An example of this is the stark difference in the number of reports produced by the NRC in 2006, with a total of 1,991 peer-reviewed publications. Last year, there were only 436. That is a decline of 78 per cent.

On December 10, a public forum event called Get Science Right was held at the Peterborough Public Library. It’s intent was to inform the public about the changes in policy the federal government had enforced that have had an adverse effect on research in scientific fields of study and universities like Trent.

The panel consisted of Associate Professor of Philosophy at Trent and specialist in Ethics and Public Policy Prof. Kathryn Norlock, award-winning scientist and Professor of Biology at Trent Prof. Marguerite Xenopoulos, and Associate Professor of the Department of Chemistry at UOIT Prof. Brad Easton.

The panel was moderated by Toronto Star reporter Louise Brown.

A recent report called The Big Chill, conducted by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), “has found that 90 percent feel they are not allowed to speak freely to the media about the work they do and that, faced with a departmental decision that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many (86 percent) would face censure or retaliation for doing so.”

Xenopoulos spoke of her personal experience with the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) being compromised, her team’s research funding terminated suddenly and without warning in May 2012.

“None of my research has any industrial application, so I am left struggling for funding. If the government decides or the policy decides to only direct funding that has linkages to corporate interest and industry, it poses a problem for research like mine and others alike,” Xenopoulous reported.

She added, “It seems to me that there is a systemic attack on science that has been happening for the past six or seven years, and it seems to be getting worse. I would describe the policy changes as pretty gutsy and bold.

“I’m specifically talking about science that is ‘inconvenient’ to corporate interest, climate change, or protection of fresh water—when our taxpayer dollars are going towards protecting the public and these scientists can’t tell us—and are not able to tell us their findings, we have a problem.”

Norlock also spoke of her research being affected.

The token non-scientist of the group, as she introduced herself, represented the rest of us as concerned citizens. “My research is primarily concerned with recommending behaviour and better policy in government, and to do that, I rely very heavily on actual empirical evidence, and it’s difficult to do that without actual empirical evidence.”

She mentions the mandatory long-term census specifically, and how when the federal government eliminated the mandatory survey for the first time in 35 years in 2010, it left a void in crucial Canadian history that is now lost forever.

“I can’t stress how important it is not just for scientists, but also for us non-scientists to have this data in order to make everyday decisions. We need science. I need it to do my job and I need it to do my research.”

The impact on Trent University is far greater than we could have imagined. With a now limited amount of funds, smaller universities are being overlooked in terms of research funding in Ontario. This presents a very ominous reality for the future of our university whose reputation is championed in research itself.

Prof. Easton talks about this reality that teachers face at smaller universities such as Trent, “Every faculty member’s worst nightmare is that there will be no money to fund their research at all. Coupled with policy changes and limited funds, the Granting Council is not able to fund as many applicants.

“This is a concern for many Canadians because not every institution is a goliath institution. You want scientists that are actively doing diverse research in various areas; you want to see interesting work.”

“I’ve heard of this problem described as a crisis before,” Norfolk said. “How long does something like this go on until it is no longer a crisis? It’s chronic.”

You can see Prof. Xenopoulos on our homepage on MyPortal. Xenopoulos and her team were recently awarded a $574,000 Strategic Project Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC, a federal agency that helps make Canada a country of discoverers and innovators).

The funding to support Dr. Xenopoulos’s project is part of a $43 million investment by NSERC in support of 77 scientific teams at universities across the country.

Her research will investigate aquatic ecosystems to further our understanding of the impact nutrient loading will have on all the Great Lakes.