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Is Canadian political decision-making influenced by scientific evidence or government interference? Jasmine van Schouwen explores the issue and the impact both sides of the debate have on students and academics

 

 

Photos courtesy of Stephen Harper (CC), and Kenny Louie (CC), respectively 

In February 2013, Democracy Watch, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization that advocates for government accountability, published a report accusing the federal government of muzzling scientists. The report contained examples based on internal government documents previously released through freedom of information requests.

This was only one of the controversies that has pitted the Harper government against Canada’s researchers and academics.

In recent years, the federal government has prevented Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick from speaking about his research on the ozone layer, and prevented Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist Kristi Miller from speaking about her research on declining salmon stocks in the country.

In the past seven years, it has developed a policy that prohibits scientists from publicly discussing their research without top-level ministerial approval.

The Conservative government has defended its position, saying that it is up to politicians in the house to find solutions to issues related to science on the basis of political debate when science finds itself unable to offer solutions based on conclusive evidence.

But the controversy has not gone unnoticed. The current administration’s handling of scientific research and debate has given Canada global attention for what has been dubbed the War on Science.

Bulky bureaucracy and picky public relations

A 2013 survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada found that 48 per cent of government scientists have seen information withheld, causing the public to be misinformed; 86 per cent said they could not report actions that might harm the public without fear of censure; and 50 per cent said that public health or safety has been compromised by political interference in science.

Scientists working for the federal government are finding themselves unable to discuss their research without first going through multiple levels of bureaucracy, according to Scott Findlay, an associate professor of biology at the University of Ottawa.

Findlay, who is also the director of the university’s Institute of the Environment and one of the leaders of the 2012 Death of Evidence march on Parliament Hill to protest the Experimental Lakes Area closure, said a major issue is that there are more and more constraints on the ability of federal government scientists to share their findings with the media, and therefore the public. And it’s not just the physical and natural scientists that are finding themselves muzzled, he said—the problem extends to the broader science research community that includes social scientists, historians, library archivists, and more.

He also pointed to widespread cuts to research institutions and the prevalence of policy decisions that appear to ignore large bodies of evidence or misrepresent their evidentiary basis as issues that can profoundly affect the state of research in Canada.

“Scientists have to go through an increasingly torturous process to get their results out there into the public space,” Findlay said.

“This is research that’s done on the public dime by good, competent scientists, and Canadians deserve to know the results of that science.” 

It’s a trend that started around 2007, according to Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, an organization that promotes evidence-based policy-making. That’s when the government made changes to the communication policies of various federal departments in order to centralize interactions with the media, thus hampering the ability of journalists to speak directly to scientists.

When the government made those changes, “all media requests had to go through the communications staff instead of being answered directly by scientists,” Gibbs explained. “So communications people would just sometimes flat out say no to journalists.”

But Kellie Leitch, former Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources, in a February 2013 interview with the CBC’s Evan Solomon denied the existence of any policies muzzling government scientists.

“Whether it be Environment Canada … Agriculture Canada or Natural Resources, scientists are allowed to publish … and are allowed to do interviews,” she said.

But only a few months earlier, when scientists at the Canadian Ice Service tried to organize a technical briefing about the extent of summer Arctic ice melting, their project had to be passed through nine levels of approval, and it was ultimately shelved during the sixth stage. Canadian journalists instead turned to American researchers in order to unveil information about the state of Canadian Arctic ice.

“People were forced to talk to scientists in the US government because they are able to talk freely, instead of talking to our Canadian scientists, who were doing important work on Canadian ice but were simply not allowed to talk about it,” said Gibbs.

According to Leitch, scientists do not need to speak directly to journalists to have freedom of speech, as long as government science institutions are still publishing studies.

“Look, I don’t know whether or not they’re feeling or not feeling [muzzled],” she said. “But what I do know is that we are publishing, we’re making sure Canadians and other individuals across the world know what our scientists are doing and we are doing that routinely.”

 

Crime, fish, and policy-based evidence-making

What many Canadian scientists are finding even more problematic is what they have come to refer to as a pattern of “policy-based evidence-making,” a reversal of what Gibbs describes as the ideal decision-making process.

“Politicians decide what policies they want to see implemented, and then they say to the public servants to go find some evidence to back them up,” she said.

“Ideally, we’d like to see good science … brought forward to the decision makers so that they can make an informed decision on what is the best policy. I don’t think that’s actually done very often.”

One case that has particularly drawn criticism from scientists and citizens alike is Bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act, which passed in June 2014. The new bill makes pieces of ID mandatory in upcoming elections, eliminating “vouching” and voter information cards as valid identification.

According to a spokesperson for Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, the law was implemented to prevent “millions of errors and several confirmed cases of fraud with the voter information card.”

Findlay said election fraud has yet to be statistically proven as a widespread issue, and would like have seen greater evidence to support the policy.

He also took issue with Bill C-10, the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which was implemented in 2012 and significantly increased the number of crimes subject to minimum mandatory sentencing in Canadian courts.

“If you’ve chosen minimum mandatory sentencing as your tool for drug-related offences, then the question becomes: What is the evidence that (it) will have any impact whatsoever?” he said.

“To paraphrase (Thomas) Jefferson, you cannot have a democratic society unless you have an informed public. And the way that the public knows is for governments to display the evidence they used to base their decisions.”

On the other hand, it’s important to look at things from the perspective of the politicians, according to Marc Saner, inaugural director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the U of O, and an associate professor in the university’s Department of Geography.

Although he admitted there have been cases where evidence may have been lacking to back government decisions, Saner said there are many factors that go into political decisions, which go beyond black-and-white scientific facts and that may sometimes be difficult to grasp from the public’s perspective. Politicians face a great challenge when dealing with issues that have implications for happiness, employment, or the general well-being of society, he said.

In 1992, the Canadian government put a long-awaited moratorium on the fishing of cod off the coast of Newfoundland after decades of overfishing had led to the lowest catch ever recorded. The Government of Canada was severely criticized for their previously insufficient regulation, which led to the collapse of the cod population, considered by many as one of the most significant ecological disasters of the 20th century.

Due to fears of unemployment, the federal government refused to shut the fishery down decades earlier, when scientific evidence mounted over the decline of cod populations. Instead they tried to mitigate the problem by implementing a 200-mile fishing limit off Canada’s eastern shores in 1977. The new limit resulted in an expansion of the fishery’s offshore trawling boat industry to exploit what government scientists were claiming was an inexhaustible supply of cod.

Saner said the collapse of the Newfoundland cod population is an example of how the government can get caught between the economic and environmental impact of their policies.

“If you tell the minister of fisheries that they create the science based on policy desires, maybe that minister will say … ‘I’m not suggesting there’s no risk for the fish, I just think the stakes are so high on the other side that I’m willing to take that risk,’” he said.

Are labs turning off the lights for good?

Scientists have been denouncing funding cuts to research and research institutes—such as those to science libraries and the federal shutdown of the Experimental Lakes project—as another attempt by the federal government to further muzzle scientists with research that could conflict with political ideology.

In the past seven years, hundreds of programs and world-renowned research facilities have lost their funding, and more than 2,000 federal scientists have been dismissed. These cuts, a great number of which came through in the 2012 omnibus Bill C-38, have touched a variety of fields, from environmental assessments and oil spill monitoring, to food inspections.

Findlay said funding cuts are a continuing problem that students in all fields need to take seriously. “If you don’t have the money to do the research, then you can’t do the research,” he said.

Gibbs explained that the main federal sources of funding for scientific research, which include the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Canadian Institute of Health Research, have seen their funding cut an average of 7.5 per cent in total from 2008 to 2013. They’re the main bodies that fund university professors and student scholarships. 

The greatest impact of the funding cuts may be on students’ academic choices. By cutting funding, “you are sending a signal that as a federal government you are not interested in science,” said Findlay.

“That message starts to get through to the people that would otherwise be going into science, and so you start to lose the next generation of science capacity.”

But the Conservative government claims it is funding research today more than ever before.

“We’ve invested $8 billion more in research since 2006,” said Leitch. “That means that there’s more available.”

The direction of change

Although the four-year political cycle has contributed to short-sighted policy-making, say observers, it also provides a solution. With a little bit of skepticism and determined political pressure, the public can change the government’s mindset.

“There’s nothing exalted about the scientific method of questioning, hypothesis testing, and so on,” said Findlay. “People just have to be more skeptical. Just because someone says it’s true it doesn’t mean that it is. You have to ask, where is the evidence?”

Evidence for Democracy has launched a campaign encouraging people to email their MPs asking for a parliamentary science officer to oversee the government’s decisions and report publicly to Parliament. 

“A new science watchdog in Parliament would be a voice for science within government,” said Gibbs.

Transparency is the key to holding politicians to evidence-based policy-making, she said. The same way students have to show their work and cite their sources, the government should be expected to do the same.

“They should say this is why we made the decision, here’s the justification, here’s the evidence that went into making this decision,” she said. “And that way, the public can judge for themselves.”

 

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Photos courtesy of Stephen Harper (CC), and Kenny Louie (CC), respectively 

In February 2013, Democracy Watch, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization that advocates for government accountability, published a report accusing the federal government of muzzling scientists. The report contained examples based on internal government documents previously released through freedom of information requests.

This was only one of the controversies that has pitted the Harper government against Canada’s researchers and academics.

In recent years, the federal government has prevented Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick from speaking about his research on the ozone layer, and prevented Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist Kristi Miller from speaking about her research on declining salmon stocks in the country.

In the past seven years, it has developed a policy that prohibits scientists from publicly discussing their research without top-level ministerial approval.

The Conservative government has defended its position, saying that it is up to politicians in the house to find solutions to issues related to science on the basis of political debate when science finds itself unable to offer solutions based on conclusive evidence.

But the controversy has not gone unnoticed. The current administration’s handling of scientific research and debate has given Canada global attention for what has been dubbed the War on Science.

Bulky bureaucracy and picky public relations

A 2013 survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada found that 48 per cent of government scientists have seen information withheld, causing the public to be misinformed; 86 per cent said they could not report actions that might harm the public without fear of censure; and 50 per cent said that public health or safety has been compromised by political interference in science.

Scientists working for the federal government are finding themselves unable to discuss their research without first going through multiple levels of bureaucracy, according to Scott Findlay, an associate professor of biology at the University of Ottawa.

Findlay, who is also the director of the university’s Institute of the Environment and one of the leaders of the 2012 Death of Evidence march on Parliament Hill to protest the Experimental Lakes Area closure, said a major issue is that there are more and more constraints on the ability of federal government scientists to share their findings with the media, and therefore the public. And it’s not just the physical and natural scientists that are finding themselves muzzled, he said—the problem extends to the broader science research community that includes social scientists, historians, library archivists, and more.

He also pointed to widespread cuts to research institutions and the prevalence of policy decisions that appear to ignore large bodies of evidence or misrepresent their evidentiary basis as issues that can profoundly affect the state of research in Canada.

“Scientists have to go through an increasingly torturous process to get their results out there into the public space,” Findlay said.

“This is research that’s done on the public dime by good, competent scientists, and Canadians deserve to know the results of that science.” 

It’s a trend that started around 2007, according to Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, an organization that promotes evidence-based policy-making. That’s when the government made changes to the communication policies of various federal departments in order to centralize interactions with the media, thus hampering the ability of journalists to speak directly to scientists.

When the government made those changes, “all media requests had to go through the communications staff instead of being answered directly by scientists,” Gibbs explained. “So communications people would just sometimes flat out say no to journalists.”

But Kellie Leitch, former Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources, in a February 2013 interview with the CBC’s Evan Solomon denied the existence of any policies muzzling government scientists.

“Whether it be Environment Canada … Agriculture Canada or Natural Resources, scientists are allowed to publish … and are allowed to do interviews,” she said.

But only a few months earlier, when scientists at the Canadian Ice Service tried to organize a technical briefing about the extent of summer Arctic ice melting, their project had to be passed through nine levels of approval, and it was ultimately shelved during the sixth stage. Canadian journalists instead turned to American researchers in order to unveil information about the state of Canadian Arctic ice.

“People were forced to talk to scientists in the US government because they are able to talk freely, instead of talking to our Canadian scientists, who were doing important work on Canadian ice but were simply not allowed to talk about it,” said Gibbs.

According to Leitch, scientists do not need to speak directly to journalists to have freedom of speech, as long as government science institutions are still publishing studies.

“Look, I don’t know whether or not they’re feeling or not feeling [muzzled],” she said. “But what I do know is that we are publishing, we’re making sure Canadians and other individuals across the world know what our scientists are doing and we are doing that routinely.”

Crime, fish, and policy-based evidence-making

What many Canadian scientists are finding even more problematic is what they have come to refer to as a pattern of “policy-based evidence-making,” a reversal of what Gibbs describes as the ideal decision-making process.

“Politicians decide what policies they want to see implemented, and then they say to the public servants to go find some evidence to back them up,” she said.

“Ideally, we’d like to see good science … brought forward to the decision makers so that they can make an informed decision on what is the best policy. I don’t think that’s actually done very often.”

One case that has particularly drawn criticism from scientists and citizens alike is Bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act, which passed in June 2014. The new bill makes pieces of ID mandatory in upcoming elections, eliminating “vouching” and voter information cards as valid identification.

According to a spokesperson for Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, the law was implemented to prevent “millions of errors and several confirmed cases of fraud with the voter information card.”

Findlay said election fraud has yet to be statistically proven as a widespread issue, and would like have seen greater evidence to support the policy.

He also took issue with Bill C-10, the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which was implemented in 2012 and significantly increased the number of crimes subject to minimum mandatory sentencing in Canadian courts.

“If you’ve chosen minimum mandatory sentencing as your tool for drug-related offences, then the question becomes: What is the evidence that (it) will have any impact whatsoever?” he said.

“To paraphrase (Thomas) Jefferson, you cannot have a democratic society unless you have an informed public. And the way that the public knows is for governments to display the evidence they used to base their decisions.”

On the other hand, it’s important to look at things from the perspective of the politicians, according to Marc Saner, inaugural director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the U of O, and an associate professor in the university’s Department of Geography.

Although he admitted there have been cases where evidence may have been lacking to back government decisions, Saner said there are many factors that go into political decisions, which go beyond black-and-white scientific facts and that may sometimes be difficult to grasp from the public’s perspective. Politicians face a great challenge when dealing with issues that have implications for happiness, employment, or the general well-being of society, he said.

In 1992, the Canadian government put a long-awaited moratorium on the fishing of cod off the coast of Newfoundland after decades of overfishing had led to the lowest catch ever recorded. The Government of Canada was severely criticized for their previously insufficient regulation, which led to the collapse of the cod population, considered by many as one of the most significant ecological disasters of the 20th century.

Due to fears of unemployment, the federal government refused to shut the fishery down decades earlier, when scientific evidence mounted over the decline of cod populations. Instead they tried to mitigate the problem by implementing a 200-mile fishing limit off Canada’s eastern shores in 1977. The new limit resulted in an expansion of the fishery’s offshore trawling boat industry to exploit what government scientists were claiming was an inexhaustible supply of cod.

Saner said the collapse of the Newfoundland cod population is an example of how the government can get caught between the economic and environmental impact of their policies.

“If you tell the minister of fisheries that they create the science based on policy desires, maybe that minister will say … ‘I’m not suggesting there’s no risk for the fish, I just think the stakes are so high on the other side that I’m willing to take that risk,’” he said.

Are labs turning off the lights for good?

Scientists have been denouncing funding cuts to research and research institutes—such as those to science libraries and the federal shutdown of the Experimental Lakes project—as another attempt by the federal government to further muzzle scientists with research that could conflict with political ideology.

In the past seven years, hundreds of programs and world-renowned research facilities have lost their funding, and more than 2,000 federal scientists have been dismissed. These cuts, a great number of which came through in the 2012 omnibus Bill C-38, have touched a variety of fields, from environmental assessments and oil spill monitoring, to food inspections.

Findlay said funding cuts are a continuing problem that students in all fields need to take seriously. “If you don’t have the money to do the research, then you can’t do the research,” he said.

Gibbs explained that the main federal sources of funding for scientific research, which include the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Canadian Institute of Health Research, have seen their funding cut an average of 7.5 per cent in total from 2008 to 2013. They’re the main bodies that fund university professors and student scholarships. 

The greatest impact of the funding cuts may be on students’ academic choices. By cutting funding, “you are sending a signal that as a federal government you are not interested in science,” said Findlay.

“That message starts to get through to the people that would otherwise be going into science, and so you start to lose the next generation of science capacity.”

But the Conservative government claims it is funding research today more than ever before.

“We’ve invested $8 billion more in research since 2006,” said Leitch. “That means that there’s more available.”

The direction of change

Although the four-year political cycle has contributed to short-sighted policy-making, say observers, it also provides a solution. With a little bit of skepticism and determined political pressure, the public can change the government’s mindset.

“There’s nothing exalted about the scientific method of questioning, hypothesis testing, and so on,” said Findlay. “People just have to be more skeptical. Just because someone says it’s true it doesn’t mean that it is. You have to ask, where is the evidence?”

Evidence for Democracy has launched a campaign encouraging people to email their MPs asking for a parliamentary science officer to oversee the government’s decisions and report publicly to Parliament. 

“A new science watchdog in Parliament would be a voice for science within government,” said Gibbs.

Transparency is the key to holding politicians to evidence-based policy-making, she said. The same way students have to show their work and cite their sources, the government should be expected to do the same.

“They should say this is why we made the decision, here’s the justification, here’s the evidence that went into making this decision,” she said. “And that way, the public can judge for themselves.”

 

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