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'Stand Up for Science' rallies take aim at federal policies

Last year, Canadian scientists and their supporters mourned the "Death of Evidence" in Ottawa. This year, though, they are being asked to stand up and be heard.

On Monday, Sept. 16, 'Stand Up for Science' rallies will be held in 14 cities across Canada, calling on the federal government to better support science done in the public interest.

"Many of the problems that were impetus of the Death of Evidence rally last year are still there, and if anything, things have continued to get worse," said Dr. Katie Gibbs, one of the organizers of both Monday's rally and last year's Death of Evidence protest.

"This rally, we're focusing more on making suggestions for how the government could start to restore public science."

Those suggestions include: supporting the open communication of publicly funded science to the public; using the best available science and evidence to make the best decisions; and funding scientific research from basic science through to applied.

Scientists have been increasingly critical of the Harper government's stance on publicly-funded research since they came into power in 2006.

By placing burdensome communications restrictions on employees, the Harper government has been criticized of muzzling or censoring scientists unable to openly discuss their research with the public. A movement away from basic forms of data collection - such as the axing of the mandatory long-form census in 2010 - has scientists increasingly concerned about Canada's ability to make evidence-based decisions. 

The result was the "Death of Evidence" rally that gathered 2,000 scientists and supporters in Ottawa last July. Following that success, Gibbs, a biologist, and fellow scientist Dr. Scott Findlay, a professor at the University of Ottawa in the Department of Biology, established Evidence for Democracy, a non-partisan NGO who's goal is to inform the population about the importance of what they call "public interest science."

Despite what was seen as a successful rally last year, though, Gibbs said the situation has continued to worsen. Restrictions on the ability of government scientists to speak publicly, for example, have continued to grow, said Gibbs, who points to new policies implemented in the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Last winter the DFO instituted new policies requiring scientists to obtain upper-level bureaucratic approval before submitting research for publication in a journal. Gibbs said that this policy goes even further, requiring additional approval once a journal accepts an article for publication. "It's an additional new sign-off that people worry could be used to stifle science that [the government doesn't] want released," she said.

These policies counter the trend in other countries, such as the US and the UK, where scientists are allowed to speak out against government policy, so long as they preface it by saying that they are not speaking on behalf of the government, said Gibbs.

The ability to speak out is crucial, Findlay said, since scientists have a crucial role to play in policy-making. "There is a real place for scientists in political debate and in public policy for the simple reason that all public policy is really just science," he explained.

Also worsening is the situation around science funding, said Gibbs. While total public funding for science and technology has dropped by 12 per cent in the past four years, according to a recent Statistics Canada report, that isn't Gibbs and Findlay's primary concern. The issue is where the money is going.

 Of the $454-million in new research and development funding announced by the federal government for 2013, nearly all of it was slotted for public-private partnerships, in large part for commercialization, wrote Findlay in the National Post last April.

Science and technology funding in increasingly directed away from basic research, where ideas are explored regardless of their profit-making potential. The government's current approach is short-sighted, said Findlay, since cutting funding for basic research will reduce the amount of new ideas that could be marketable in the long-run.

While government actions are of great concern, the primary target for the rally is the public at large, say the organizers.

Their hope is to draw the public's attention to the importance of scientific research for government policy-making, including the social sciences.

Gibbs points to the Conservative government's decision to implement mandatory minimum sentences in order to reduce crime rates. Reviewing the research on the impact of mandatory minimum sentences in other jurisdictions, she said the clear result is that crime rates do not drop. Adopting mandatory minimum sentences in Canada as a way to reduce crime rates goes against evidence-based decision-making and demonstrates the need to pressure the government to change its approach, said Gibbs.

"I think we've got to restore the health of Canadian science and that we need to take preventative measures, and that will only happen if we convince people of the importance of public interest science," said Findlay. "I would consider this a success even if the federal government does nothing, if Canadians started to say, 'Oh, I didn't realize that public interest science was so important to me and my welfare.'

"I want people to not only stand up for science, but to actually start to take a bit of ownership of public interest science."

[This article originally appeared on The DeSmog Blog and is published here with permission.]

Tim McSorley is a freelance journalist and editor with the Media Co-op. He lives in Montreal.

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