David Schindler, founder of the Experimental Lakes Area, was a featured panelist at the Edmonton Town Hall. [Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press]
Researchers and community members have gathered in the first four of a series of CAUT-organized outreach meetings planned for across Canada to raise awareness about the serious harm being caused by misguided government policies on science and research.
“Political interference in scientific decision-making, the muzzling of government researchers, cutbacks in funding for fundamental research and pressure on researchers to cater to industry needs are harming scholarly work in Canada and hurting our country’s future,” said CAUT executive director James Turk. “We hope our town hall discussions between leading scientists and researchers and members of the public will help spark action for change.”
So far this fall, town halls have been held in Waterloo, Edmonton, Quebec City and Halifax.
Speaking at the first town hall meeting, University of Waterloo philosopher David DeVidi shared the experience of many in noting the dwindling money for research.
“Increasingly, university researchers who apply for granting council funding are being denied, not because their research isn’t worthwhile, but because there are no direct and immediate commercial results,” he told the Waterloo audience Sept. 17.
Other panelists at the event also noted that control over how government scientists share and communicate research violates the public trust.
Similar themes preoccupied Edmonton’s town hall in late October where more than 130 people heard firsthand of the current crisis from distinguished University of Alberta researchers Hanne Ostergaard, Nils Petersen, Stephen Slemon and David Schindler.
Schindler, a marine biologist and founder of the Experimental Lakes Area, remarked: “I don’t think this government appreciates how serendipitous scientific discovery really is.” He likened the current muzzling of scientists to efforts to monitor the work of researchers during the Cold War era.
“I do basic research,” said Ostergaard, who studies cellular activity of the immune system. “It’s about as basic as it gets, and I can see there are fewer resources to support it.” She described the curiosity-driven DNA research that “unexpectedly enabled advances in forensic investigations,” as “unlikely” to be funded today.
“We are seeing a continuous devaluing of critical engagement,” Slemon said, noting how the social sciences and humanities are also being pared down to their “commercial” aspects, and are being forced to demonstrate their value and relevance in terms of costs and deliverables.
Diane Parent, an animal science professor at Laval University, highlighted the importance of unfettered research for the agricultural sector in her opening remarks of the Quebec City meeting that took place earlier in November.
“As food production becomes increasingly corporatized, it will become more and more difficult to find the ‘commercial application’ of research inherently critical of genetically-modified or factory-farmed foodstuffs,” she warned.
The growing concern among academic researchers over the federal government’s science policies has been echoed by government scientists. A recent report issued by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada revealed that half of federal scientists knew of actual cases where the health and safety of Canadians or environmental safety was compromised due to political interference and the suppression of research. Forty-eight percent of government scientists were also aware of cases where the government suppressed research to intentionally mislead the public.
Town hall meetings in Peterborough, Vancouver, Kingston, Calgary, St. John’s, Montreal and Toronto are planned for the coming months.
For more information on the campaign, visit GetScienceRight.ca