Science and politics in Canada

2010-10-21

in Canada, Geek stuff, Internet matters, Law, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

I think it’s fair to say that political conservatives have long had a rocky relationship with science. While they approve of the chain from basic science to technology to economic growth, science has also repeatedly brought to light facts that undermine conservative ideologies and religious perspectives. With that in mind, this is an interesting development:

Today, the union that represents federal government scientists launches a campaign to put the spotlight on science for the public good.

“Federal government scientists work hard to protect Canadians, preserve their environment and ensure our country’s prosperity but they face dwindling resources and confusing policy decisions,” says Gary Corbett, president of the Institute.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada is a national union. Among its 59,000 federal and provincial members are 23,000 professionals who deliver, among other knowledge products, scientific research, testing and advice for sound policy-making.

The recent decision to end the mandatory long form census is the latest step in a worrying trend away from evidence-based policy making. Restrictive rules are curtailing media and public access to scientists, while cutbacks to research and monitoring limit Canada’s ability to deal with serious threats and potential opportunities.

This follows an editorial in Nature criticizing the Canadian government:

Concerns can only be enhanced by the government’s manifest disregard for science. Since prime minister Stephen Harper came to power, his government has been sceptical of the science on climate change and has backed away from Canada’s Kyoto commitment. In January, it muzzled Environment Canada’s scientists, ordering them to route all media enquires through Ottawa to control the agency’s media message. Last week, the prime minister and members of the cabinet failed to attend a ceremony to honour the Canadian scientists who contributed to the international climate-change report that won a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

While factual claims about the nature of the universe do have political ramifications – think of the reality of climate change, or evolution – that doesn’t mean that the expression of factual information is a political act. Further, society has an enormous interest in the dissemination of accurate information, and the formulation of policy on the basis of such information. As such, it is encouraging to see scientists asserting their right to express their expert opinions, even when doing so is politically challenging for the government.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

. October 21, 2010 at 8:49 am

Canadian gov’t scientists protest gag order, go straight to public with own website

Cory Doctorow at 10:12 PM Wednesday, Oct 20, 2010

Alan sez, “It looks like the Canadian government is making life harder for scientists who want to talk to the media about their work. Presumably the science is inconvenient for those in power. In response, the scientists’ union has put up a web site to inform the public directly.”

Canada’s Tory government is notoriously hostile to science (especially climate science, which poses an existential threat to their power base in the planet-killing tar-sands). But a state-imposed gag-order on scientists, putting their ability to communicate to the press in the hands of petty bureaucrats, is beyond the pale even for them. Why is it that so many “small government neocons” love big government solutions to their embarrassing little problems?

. October 21, 2010 at 10:01 am

NY Times Editorial: Cheney-trained Republicans Have Disappeared In a Fog Of Disinformation on Climate

The New York Times editorial today focuses on the influence of Dick Cheney’s brand of denialism to explain the fact that none of the Republican candidates for U.S. Senate accept the scientific consensus that human activities are largely responsible for climate disruption.

The editorial “In Climate Denial, Again” notes that GOP candidates this election season are “re-running the strategy of denial perfected by Mr. Cheney a decade ago, repudiating years of peer-reviewed findings about global warming and creating an alternative reality in which climate change is a hoax or conspiracy.”

The current crop of fact-challenged candidates running on the GOP ticket range from the outright deniers like Nevada candidate Sharron Angle to the “wiggly” position demonstrated by the likes of California’s Carly Fiorina – a favorite of the billionaire Koch brothers – who remains “unsure” about the scientific foundation confirmed by all of the world’s top scientific institutions.

alena October 21, 2010 at 11:59 am

Bravo for scientists who are not afraid to speak out their knowledge. Governments have created so much confusion, denial and misinformation around climate change that people are often misguided. Books written by scientists can be difficult, but they are credible because they are based on the scientific method. It is time for scientists to come out and create a deluge of information to cause a major stir.

Milan October 21, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Governments have created so much confusion, denial and misinformation around climate change that people are often misguided.

Certainly, political parties, candidates, and lobby groups have spread a lot of misinformation and confusion. Governments, on the other hand, have mostly claimed to accept the science, then refused to do anything about it.

One suitable role for scientists is to draw attention to the disjoint between the strength of the targets governments adopt and the plans which they develop to reach them. Similarly, scientists can provide accurate information in response to the claims that are sometimes made about climate change being no big deal, or even likely to be beneficial.

Byron Smith October 21, 2010 at 3:57 pm

I agree with the thrust of this post, though it’s worth keeping in mind that the assumption that religion = conservative is a shorthand that is perhaps as honoured in the breach as the observance. In other words, the rise of a “religious right” claiming (more or less) a monopoly on certain kinds of voters is largely a recent US phenomenon.

Milan October 21, 2010 at 4:09 pm

People who are both religious and socially progressive tend not to have as much of a problem with evolutionary biology, climate science, and so forth. In my experience, they tend to review religion in a way that isn’t undermined by the contradictions between holy texts and what we now know about the world.

Still, a good point.

oleh October 22, 2010 at 12:12 am

The face of the man in your picture is wonderful.

R.K. October 25, 2010 at 11:31 am

Has Nature ever printed a similar editorial criticizing a different government?

Also, have scientists in other places launched similar websites/campaigns?

It would be interesting to see how the Canadian situation compares to others around the world.

Milan October 27, 2010 at 10:19 am

I don’t know, but I would also like to know the answers to those questions.

. March 17, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Canadians donate $10,000 to save Arctic research station

PEARL forced to stop year-round monitoring of greenhouse gases, pollution

Canadians have donated about $10,000 to help keep a unique High Arctic research station from closing after its federal funding stops, says the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences.

The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, or PEARL, is the northern-most civilian research station in Canada. The laboratory takes measurements on greenhouse gases and ozone and verifies the accuracy of satellite data, among other things. It contributes data to several international projects monitoring climate change.

“Donations range from $5 up to over $1,000 and they come from coast to coast, from students, from people from all walks of life who are responding to the fact that this unique research station will not continue,” said Dawn Conway, executive director of the foundation.

She says about 80 people have donated since the Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change announced the station would not be able to continue year-round.

. September 17, 2013 at 12:10 am

Stand Up for Science rallies target federal government

Motion supporting scientists’ freedom to speak tabled by NDP

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