Lab Canada


Many scientists in Canada fear that changes being made to our nation's science policy are detrimental to the future of science in this country. The Canadian Association of University Teachers has launched a campaign to promote awareness about this issue, and its executive director, James L. Turk, recently spoke to BIG Cloner about the issues facing Canadian scientists today.

The past year-and-a-half has seen unprecedented protests by scientists across Canada.

Concerns have been growing about the way the federal government is refusing to let its government scientists speak freely about their research, how it is channeling funding away from basic research and toward applied research, and turning our research institutes into arms of industry, among other issues.

Starting with the ‘Death of Evidence’ rally in Ottawa in July 2012, scientists and other citizens have taken to the streets to express their concerns about the state of science in the country. Protests have also been held to oppose the planned closures of the Experimental Lakes Area in Northern Ontario and the Kluane Lake Research Station in the Yukon.

And last September, scientists again obliged this time in the thousands in cities across the country when the advocacy group Evidence for Democracy asked them to organize local demonstrations to voice their concerns about the state of science in Canada. Across the country, the effort was one of the largest nationwide pro-science rallies in Canadian history.

Along with their colleagues in government and the private sector, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT)’s members believe the government’s policy changes are doing great harm to science in Canada. And despite increasing and persistent criticism, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has so far resisted rectifying its policies that have unarguably changed who gets to conduct scientific research in Canada and how that research is done.

CAUT — a federation of faculty associations of 124 colleges and universities across the country, which represents about 68,000 university and college teachers — is raising awareness of these issues through an ongoing, nationwide series of town hall meetings dubbed “Get Science Right”.

“The challenge of putting together the campaign is there are a number of problems with how the federal government is approaching science and research,” says James L. Turk, CAUT’s executive director. “The campaign is an attempt to highlight those different ones — some of which have received reasonable public attention, some haven’t — [and] to build public support for some fundamental changes in how the federal government deals with science and research.”  

The muzzling of federal scientists is the issue that has received the most attention thus far, he notes.

The issue came into alarming focus in 2011, he says, when Kristi Miller-Saunders, a scientist at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and head of the federal Pacific Biological Station on Vancouver Island, reported to the media that she was prevented by the Privy Council Office from speaking about the results of her investigation into the dwindling salmon stocks in B.C.

Her research revealed a virus may be the culprit responsible for the deaths of Pacific Salmon before they reach their spawning grounds.

Articles appeared in numerous publications including a July 27, 2011 piece published by Postmedia entitled “Ottawa Silences Scientists Over West Coast Salmon Study”.

The writer, Margaret Munro, revealed in her article that documents obtained through the Access To Information Act that show the Privy Council Office quashed a media release about Miller’s findings and wouldn’t allow her to do interviews, despite numerous requests from media, and that the results of her study had already been published in the well-respected Science magazine.

And, the government has devised new guidelines that require a lengthy approval process before a scientist can speak with the media.

The Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Victoria released a lengthy report, Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat To Democracy, in early 2013, that included policy statements and emails acquired through the Access to Information Act demonstrating how the government is preventing the media from speaking with government scientists.

The report revealed the government is purposely preventing its scientists from speaking directly and freely to the media, and purposely attempts to discourage media interest by taking weeks to approve requests for interviews. By the time the request for an interview has been granted, the news outlet has often moved onto another topic.

The effect has been less media coverage of hot-button issues like climate change, as well as fewer requests for interviews.

When an interview is granted and a scientist is able to speak to the media, the report revealed they’re often not allowed to speak freely. Instead, they have to respond along approved media lines written by communications officials.

Politically inconvenient results

In many cases, scientists are forbidden to speak when their results are not supportive — or could undermine — a policy decision made by the government.

Turk describes these types of results as “politically inconvenient.”

The union to which most federal scientists belong, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, has taken an interest in the matter and commissioned Environics Research to survey 15,398 federal scientists across 40 government departments and agencies — 4,069 responded.

The findings were published in a report dubbed The Big Chill: Silencing Public Interest Science, A Survey, which was released on October 21. Some of the key findings included:

  • 90% said they did not feel they could speak freely to the media about their work;
  • 86% said they feared retaliation or censure if they spoke to the media or public about a decision made by their department or agency that could harm public health, safety or the environment;
  • 50% reported being aware of cases where political interference compromised health and safety of Canadians or the environmental sustainability;
  • 37% were prevented from responding to questions by the public and media by public relations staff or management over the past five years; and
  • 24% had been directly asked to exclude information from reports for non-scientific reasons.

But government scientists aren’t the only ones being censored.

Extending the veil of silence

“Earlier this year it became clear they were extending it beyond government scientists to muzzle academic scientists who are working with government scientists,” says Turk.

This came to light when University of Delaware physical oceanographer, Andreas Muenchow, went public about a research agreement he received from the Canadian government that asked him to sign away his rights to publish his findings without express written consent of the federal government.

Articles appeared in media outlets such as the CBC website: Canadian Federal Research Deal Potentially Muzzles U.S. Scientists.

Turk says agreements like these could deter scientists from around the world from collaborating with Canadian scientists in the employ of the federal government because they aren’t able to publish their findings freely.

Funding cuts

Muzzling is just the tip of the iceberg, although it has received the most attention, says Turk.

Sweeping modifications to granting procedures, favouring applied, industry-focused research over basic research, cancelling important research programs as well as the long-form census, have all combined to make Canada a difficult place to conduct basic research.

These changes have a huge impact on research in Canada because the principal source of funding for scholarly research is through the federal granting councils the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

“Those are the bodies that fund the overwhelming proportion of academic research,” says Turk. “And that’s important in Canada because there’s no country in the world that relies more on academic research and government science than Canada. The reason for that is because there’s so little genuine research done in the private sector in Canada.”

The Conference Board of Canada says Canada has been receiving ‘D’ grades for business enterprise R&D (BERD) spending since the 1980s, and ranks 15th out of 16 peer countries.

In the U.S., BERD spending as a percentage of GDP is double the amount spent in Canada, and in Finland — with a population of just 5.4 million — it is three times higher.

The CAUT reports that grant money provided by the granting councils has also been reduced. Figure 1 shows that between 2007 and 2012, overall base funding decreased by 7.5%. This is at the same time the number of number of university-based researchers in Canada grew by 9.5% from 38,313 in 2007-08 to 41,934 in 2010-11, according to an October 2013 report in CAUT’s Educational Review.

Now, not only is the amount of academic research funding being cut, but it’s being shifted away from basic research towards applied research.

Figure 2 provides an example of how applied research (that is, ‘fettered’ to academic-industry partnerships) is getting a bigger share of the pie in this case, fettered research now receives more NSERC funding than does basic research.

CAUT says all new funding approved for 2013 is being allocated towards research conducted in partnership with industry.

While application-focused research is important, cutting basic research will impact innovation in the future. As Turk explains, “You can’t apply science that hasn’t been developed.”

Many scientists don’t know how their basic research will be applied to develop new products and Turk adds that he has heard some say they feel as though they must invent potential applications just to get their funding renewed.

He said the change in funding reflects policy changes that are “being driven by political priorities not scientific policies,” and that it seems the federal government currently believes scientists “should be functionaries that do what they’re told” and that they should be “the arm of industry.”

A further example is the change that has been made to the country’s storied research organization, the National Research Council (NRC). In the past couple of years, its work has been gradually shifted away from basic research and toward making it a ‘toolbox for industry’. Then, last May, the federal government made the announcement that the NRC had been “transformed into an industry-focused research and technology organization.” And, “the refocused NRC will work with Canadian industries to bridge technology gaps, helping build a more innovative Canadian economy.”

NRC now has a special Web portal that promotes its new role as a “Concierge Service” for industry.

Fighting back and moving forward

To prevent politics from interfering with science, CAUT would like the research councils to become arms-length organizations that function with little government interference.

Turk said his organization is also calling for the re-creation of a parliamentary science officer — a position axed by the Harper government — who can provide impartial advice on scientific matters.

On Parliament Hill, the NDP also wants to make this happen. Science and Technology Critic, Kennedy Stewart, announced in late November that he was tabling a new bill to create an independent Parliamentary Science Officer. The bill received first reading in the House of Commons in early December.

“After years of muzzling, mismanagement and misuse of science by the Conservative government, this new office will promote real transparency and ensure decisions made in Ottawa are based on the best available scientific evidence,” he said in a statement.

The Get Science Right campaign has already made several stops across the country, most recently in Vancouver, and the town halls will continue for another year.

“This is a long-term initiative,” Turk explains. “Scientific work is so important to the future of Canada, and our misguided science policy is so harmful, and we’ve done everything we can to have discussions with the government about [how] we see it moving in an incredibly wrong direction and we’ve had very little success.”

Even though some scientists are concerned that speaking out could cost them their research grants, Turk says they haven’t had any difficulty finding people for their panel discussions.

During the events, panelists discuss challenges facing scientists in Canada today and invite public participation.

“It’s our sense that we have to make this a discussion with the public. It’s not sufficient simply to have researchers, and scientists — whether they’re in universities, the private sector or government — talking among themselves and wringing their hands. If there’s going to be a change, we have to have a discussion about what it means for them and what it means for Canada,” he says.

Other organizations are also working to change the policies implemented by the Harper government.

Following its successful rallies across the country, for example, Evidence for Democracy is now running an online letter-writing campaign called Science Uncensored to ask the leaders of all five federal parties to claw back the policies that are preventing scientists from openly speaking to the public.

So far it has gained over 7,000 signatures.

All in all, Canadian scientists are facing a tough battle, and thankfully there are still many willing to put up a fight.