A group of more than 150 gathered at a CAUT organized town hall meeting in Vancouver Jan. 28, the sixth of a national series of events CAUT is sponsoring to foster discussion on Canada’s future in science & research. Science journalist & event moderator Bob McDonald speaking, with noted panelists Gwenn Flowers, Jane Watson, Siân Echard & James Wright, touched on the issues at stake & recent actions of the federal government, from sweeping cuts to national science programs, to the collapse of world-class facilities, to muzzling of scientists.
CAUT’s Get Science Right
town hall in Vancouver in late January drew a crowd to discuss with four eminent researchers the damage being done by the federal government’s science policy.
The event, part of CAUT’s continuing cross-country series of town hall meetings, was moderated by CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.
Panelists included Siân Echard, professor of English at the University of British Columbia; Gwenn Flowers, Canada Research Chair in Glaciology at Simon Fraser University; Jane Watson, a marine and fisheries biologist at Vancouver Island University; and James Wright, professor of medicine and director of the Therapeutics Initiative at UBC.
In her opening remarks, Flowers described the hits to arctic research from government cuts. “Whole research programs have been shut down or put in serious jeopardy,” she said.
She noted that the absence of rigorous, scientific information — and an informed public — means that decision making becomes increasingly concentrated in big business and the state. “Instead of science informing policy, this government wants policy to inform science,” Flowers said.
Watson pointed out that the federal government had dismissed scientists from the government committee that reviews the status of endangered species. “It’s like scientists are being punched around every day,” she added.
Panellists and audience members shared their concern about scientific libraries being dismantled by the federal government and materials being lost, destroyed or made inaccessible. Doubts were cast on whether the closures and destruction had anything to do with digitizing books as claimed by federal officials.
“Digitization must be carried out with care and it takes time, and it’s clear this government is not doing that,” said Echard. “If it isn’t done right, that knowledge is lost.”
McDonald pointed out that, beyond the dismantling of scientific institutions and practices, federal scientists, academics, journalists, and environmental organizations across Canada have complained of increasingly strict communications policies that prevent researchers from relaying crucial scientific information to the media or the public.
“It used to be that when we called a government department and asked to speak to a scientist, we got one,” he said. “Now we are told we must speak to a PR contact, someone who is often not an expert in the field we’re interested in.”
A common question raised throughout the event was: What can we do?
“Regulation of industries that are impacted by our scientific research is a good start,” said Wright. “We have designed corporations to behave psychopathically, so we can’t be surprised when they do so. The oil industry, pharmaceutical industry and mining industry need to be subject to informed regulation based on good science.”
Echard said education occupies an important position in “producing scientifically literate citizens.”
Flowers noted that scientists are often not trained to communicate scientific concepts to a layperson audience, “and it’s why people like Bob McDonald and others who work to communicate science clearly to Canadians are so important.”
At the same time, some attendees questioned whether the media were doing enough to expose questionable government policies and actions like closing world-renowned research stations and throwing library collections into landfills.
“The assault is on so many fronts that we are limited in how we can respond,” said Watson, defending the work of journalists actively trying to report on the issues. She also reflected on why it may seem scientists are mostly silent about the issues. “I speak out about cuts to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. Of course I care about other things, but my energy and time are limited.”
One audience member pointed out that university professors are protected by academic freedom, so that in this chilling climate they have an obligation to speak out about policies that damage scientific inquiry in Canada. On this point there was wide agreement.