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From the BrainSTEM: Federal science demands democratic reform

a/From the BrainSTEM/Science & Technology by

I’d like to think we live in a country where democracy is valued—a place where all groups are represented equally.Why then, is the Canadian government continuing to overhaul scientific communication policies while cutting the funding  for important research programs?

Recently, more than 800 scientists from 32 different countries signed an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper highlighting what they called a rapid decline in both the freedom and the funding allowed to federal scientists. The letter states that this decline has made it consistently more difficult for them to communicate scientific information and collaborate internationally—as well as to actually conduct research. The restrictions imposed on the scientists have been described as burdensome and excessive, with $2.6 billion in funding cuts to the top ten science-based government departments and ministries between 2013 and 2016. In addition, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents 15,000 scientists in 40 federal departments, has determined that 90 per cent of its scientists do not feel they can speak freely to the media—and effectively, the public—about their work.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon. The effective muzzling of federal scientists has been a known and disputed problem since Harper entered office. There is considerable consistency in terms of what scientific information requires the highest level of governmental control in terms of the accessibility of information—tar sands, climate change, and the oil and gas industries. This is not a coincidence.

Canadian politicians are explicitly tied to large businesses with interests in the resource extraction industry, geared towards making Canada the next global energy superpower—a nation that supplies enough resources to influence world markets. This has happened despite the constant urgings from international scientists to scale back carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. Canada is dependent on ecologically and economically unsustainable oil and gas resources—but evidence to support this runs almost directly against the government’s agenda regarding Canada’s role as an energy superpower.

The culture of science aligns directly with the culture of theorized democratic governance. Consistent attacks on government scientists’ ability to communicate freely with the public and other scientists on an international scale must be seen as a larger attack against democracy as we fundamentally know it.  In the absence of accessible scientific information, there is a lack of an informed public. Effectively, decision-making becomes increasingly geared towards the preferences of those in power.

As citizens, these restrictions leave us blind to the realities of the natural world on both a local and global scale—which, whether we’d care to admit it or not, severely and negatively impacts our ability to make reasoned judgments on public matters. The public has the responsibility to demand information, as our own ignorance feeds directly into policy decision-making. Scientific knowledge should not be seen as explicitly prescriptive, and should not directly determine the policy decisions made by the government. However, it must inform those decisions, as good decisions should rely upon evidence—which is effectively produced through scientific inquiry. Tolerating the increasing restrictions on science in Canada isn’t far from tolerating a suppression of democracy itself.

Those in science must reason together as a community. This means dealing with incomplete evidence as well as forming conclusions that everyone can agree upon. Science can only thrive in an open and free environment in which its actors can collaborate across real and intangible barriers. The very nature of the scientific community as one in which everyone fights and argues as hard as they can for what they believe—while respecting both the tradition and the community itself—can feed into a discussion about societal democracy.

There is a real relationship between the ethics of science and the ethics of democracy. The democratic community is a network of relationships, and the politics affecting this network ideally function as a way to achieve a better society. Unfortunately, this continues to not be the case for the Canadian scientific community.

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