A Funeral for Canadian Science

Peace and Environment News, September–October 2012
by Mike Buckthought

Death of Evidence rally, Ottawa, July 10, 2012. Photo by Richard Webster.

Death of Evidence rally, Ottawa, July 10, 2012. Photo by Richard Webster.

On July 10, 2012, hundreds of Canadian researchers and concerned citizens marched to Parliament Hill to protest the government’s unprecedented war on science. Protesters wore lab coats, or dressed in black to mourn the “death of evidence.”

At the front of a mock funeral procession, a black-robed Grim Reaper carried a scythe, symbolizing the budget cuts that have killed many research projects. Following behind the Grim Reaper, pallbearers carried a coal black coffin.

Many protesters carried placards with messages mourning the loss of important environmental research programs. People highlighted the federal government’s decision to cut funding for the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). “It doesn’t matter how much water you have if it’s all polluted. Save ELA,” read one placard.

The ELA is just one example of a research program that has been cut. Recent government decisions have seriously undermined our ability to develop sound environmental policies based on scientific evidence. “Canadians want science-based policy, not ideology,” said one placard.

The procession continued down Wellington Street, a river of white and black leading to Parliament Hill. Along the way, people chanted “No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy.” A rally on the Hill featured speakers from the scientific community and non-governmental organizations such as the Council of Canadians.

“We are all here today to commemorate the untimely death of evidence in Canada. After a long battle with the current federal government, evidence has suffered its final blow,” said rally organizer Katie Gibbs.

“Between the sweeping cuts to federal science programs, the legislation changes that we saw in Bill C‑38, and the muzzling of scientists, the injuries to evidence have just been overwhelming.”

The speakers delivered “eulogies” criticizing recent actions of the federal government.

“The risks of living in a fantasy world at this point in history are very grave,” said Dr. Arme Moores, professor of biodiversity at Simon Fraser University.

Moores said the government appears to be “retreating from reality” at a time when there are serious threats to our water, food and the environment. “When countries engage in fantasy, it’s called state propaganda,” he said.

Another speaker criticized the government’s attempts to silence scientists, and recent changes to the Fisheries Act.

“The federal government has weakened national fisheries and environmental legislation, trivialized the relevance of scientific advice, and eliminated government scientific research of fundamental importance to the health of Canadians,” said Jeff Hutchings, a professor of biology at Dalhousie University.

“Freedom of expression is no longer a right enjoyed by Canadian government scientists,” he said. “When you inhibit the communication of science, you inhibit science. When you inhibit science, you inhibit the acquisition of knowledge.”

At a time when many species are threatened by climate change, industrial pollution and loss of habitat, it is essential to support environmental research. The death of evidence leads to the death of species.

Canadians will not be content to live in a country that turns its back on scientific research. Such an approach is dangerous, at a time when our survival is threatened by global warming. In future years, the Death of Evidence rally will no doubt be seen as a turning point. After years of budget cuts and the silencing of scientists, people are ready to speak out.

For photos, videos and background information about cuts to environmental research in Canada, visit the Death of Evidence website: www.deathofevidence.ca.

Mike Buckthought is a writer and environmental researcher based in Ottawa.

Published in the Peace and Environment News, Volume 27, Number 4, September–October 2012, page 1.

Cuts to Environmental Research

Peace and Environment News, September–October 2012
by Mike Buckthought

Death of Evidence rally, Ottawa, July 10, 2012. Photo by Richard Webster.

Death of Evidence rally, Ottawa, July 10, 2012. Photo by Richard Webster.

Following the July 10 “Death of Evidence” rally in Ottawa, the scientific journal Nature featured an editorial commenting on the Harper government’s cuts to research. “The sight last week of 2,000 scientists marching on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill highlighted a level of unease in the Canadian scientific community that is unprecedented in living memory,” the journal noted.

Over the past six years, we have seen an unprecedented attack on scientific research, with many cuts focused on environmental programs:

  • Budget cuts have hit Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, and other government departments.
  • The world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area will be closed. It is a unique research facility in Northwestern Ontario that has operated since 1968.
  • The federal government is axing funding for Canada’s Research Tools and Instruments Grants Program (RTI). This key program funds purchases of research equipment. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is holding one last competition, with reduced funding compared to previous years.
  • The Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre is losing $400,000 annual funding from NSERC. Thousands of scientists from around the world use the station, located on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
  • The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) ceased year-round operations in April 2012. This was a unique research station in Eureka, Nunavut, that played a key role in monitoring the depletion of ozone over the Arctic. The ozone layer shields us from ultraviolet rays that can cause skin cancer.
  • The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) published reports on climate change, energy efficiency, air pollution and other important issues. Its funding was eliminated in the recent federal budget.
  • Since 1961, the Kluane Lake Research Station has allowed researchers to study Yukon’s glaciers. Improving our knowledge of glaciers leads to better climate modelling. The station’s federal funding was axed. Without additional funding, the centre will be forced to close.
  • Layoffs at Fisheries and Oceans will limit the department’s ability to assess the environmental impacts of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. According to documents obtained by the Canadian Press, the department was not able to complete an environmental risk assessment for the nearly 1,000 streams and rivers that would be crossed by a pipeline. The department “has not conducted a complete review of all proposed crossings,” however “this work will continue.”
  • Environment Canada researchers are required to follow a restrictive media relations protocol. Scientists wait for approvals from bureaucrats that do not understand the research. Because of the cumbersome approvals process, journalists miss their deadlines and do not report on groundbreaking research. Some scientists have been directed not to talk to the media about their research.

Mike Buckthought writes about environmental issues.

Published in the Peace and Environment News, Volume 27, Number 4, September–October 2012, page 6.