Canadian scientists protest government muzzling of researchers

Hundreds of protesters, many of them wearing white lab coats, gathered yesterday across 17 Canadian cities to express their annoyance at the federal government's anti-science policies. Advocates say the campaign to counter these measures has moved into a new phase.

As a quick recap, the Conservative Harper government has been waging a kind of war against certain branches of scientific research, particularly any work that could potentially damage its efforts to extract oil from the Athabasca tar sands. To that end, the government shut down the Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario, and it downsized other research areas that are relevant to climate and the environment.

Just as controversially, the Harper government has also made it difficult for journalists to contact researchers directly, setting up a wall of bureaucratic red tape that hinders accessibility. In light of this, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault launched an investigation of Conservative’s practices earlier this year (which is still ongoing).

Canadian scientists protest government muzzling of researchers

Yesterday’s protests, an event titled “Stand Up for Science,” was an effort to show the Federal government that people are taking notice. Organizers say it’s part of a larger effort, one that will now involve the drafting and promotion of policies that reflect best practices on research integrity and funding priorities. The event was organized by an Ottawa-based science advocacy group called Evidence for Democracy.

From the group’s website:

Science matters to Canadians. Good science, when coupled with good decision-making, keeps our water and air clean, keeps us healthy, keeps our food safe and prepares Canada for the future. Science in the public interest is crucial for our well-being and long-term prosperity.

Many of the scientists who showed up wore gags adorned with the Conservative Party logo over their mouths. The grim reaper even made an appearance, an indication of science's imminent death.

More from the Globe and Mail:

In a brief statement, Greg Rickford, federal minister of state for science and technology did not acknowledge the protests but said, “Our government is committed to science, technology, innovation, and taking ideas to the marketplace. Canada is ranked number one among G7 countries for its higher education expenditures on research and development.”

“We are building on these successes to improve the quality of life of Canadians and to create jobs, growth and long-term prosperity.”

Dr. [Katie] Gibbs said [Evidence for Democracy] would consult with the Canadian research community and look to other countries in trying to craft recommended policies for science in government. In recent years explicit scientific integrity rules have been adopted by many U.S. federal departments and agencies, after accusations of censorship and politicization of science during the administration of former president George W. Bush.

“Canadian scientists are where American scientists were maybe a decade ago,” said Michael Halpern, a Washington, D.C.-based program manager with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “They’re trying to figure out how to protect themselves from a government that’s increasingly focused on message control over a more open discussion of the facts.”

Images: Margo McDiarmid/CBC.