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Canadian Scientists Say They’re Unsure What Trudeau Means When He Says ‘Science’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned aggressively on the issue of science in the lead up to the last federal election. And it makes sense that he did: for the first time ever in Canadian history the issue of scientific integrity was a major election issue for voters across the nation.

Images of shuttered libraries, gagged scientists and dumpsters full of books haunted the Canadian imagination under the Harper government.

Trudeau promised to change all of that. Brandishing the language of the scientific community itself Trudeau painted a vision of a Canadian scientific renaissance, with the restoration of scientific integrity and the veritable holy grail of political vows: evidence-based decision-making.

“As a scientist, I was personally thrilled with the Liberal government’s vocal support for science, especially regarding the critical role that scientific evidence should play in informed decision-making,” Wendy Palen, associate professor and biologist at Simon Fraser University, told DeSmog Canada.

In the early days of the federal government under Trudeau, there were several events that shored up that sense of optimism including the anchoring of ministerial duties in science in open mandate letters and restored funding for research in the first Liberal budget.

Trudeau also promised to bring social and scientific credibility back to the environmental assessments of major resource projects.

“I think I can say the scientific community breathed a sigh of relief over the change in attitude around science and the role of scientific decision-making,” Palen said.

But, she added, that sentiment has stopped short in recent months.

In September the federal government approved the controversial Pacific Northwest LNG export terminal near Prince Rupert, B.C. The terminal is expected to become Canada’s single largest point source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Although opposed by all major environmental organizations in B.C., the project and its treatment under the federal review system raised a number of red flags for the scientific community in particular.

Flora Bank juts out towards Lelu Island, where the Pacific Northwest LNG terminal is to be located. Photo: Ocean Ecology

Proposed for the Flora Bank estuary, a unique eelgrass bed that provides resting grounds for hundreds of thousands of juvenile salmon from the Skeena watershed, the LNG terminal’s proposed site clashed hard with biologists and members of the conservation community who say, Tweet: You couldn’t have picked a worse location for Pacific NorthWest LNG http://bit.ly/2hNXUEJ #cdnpoli #bcpoli #Skeena #PNWLNGwhen it comes to salmon, a worse location simply couldn’t have been selected.

The federal environmental assessment of the LNG terminal — which concluded destroyed salmon habitat could simply be rebuilt elsewhere — was so fraught with problems members of the scientific community penned an open letter to Trudeau and his cabinet, pleading with them to reject the project’s review.

In that letter, scientists detailed a fundamentally flawed assessment process in which peer-reviewed science was ignored, basic principles of scientific investigation were violated and research paid for by the project’s proponent, Malaysian-owned Petronas, was given primacy.

The federal government ignored those pleas from the scientific community and on a September evening environment and climate minister Catherine McKenna announced the project’s approval.

“This project was subject to a rigorous environmental assessment and today’s announcement reflects this commitment,” she said.

Hearing those words, many scientists in B.C. were simply perplexed.

More recently Trudeau along with members of his cabinet approved the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline under a review process so thoroughly broken, Trudeau campaigned on the explicit promise to scrap it entirely.

But that’s not what happened and last month scientists were again baffled at the cooptation of the language of science in the pipeline’s approval.

“This is a decision based on rigorous debate, on science and on evidence. We will not be swayed by political arguments," Trudeau said.

"If I thought this project was unsafe for the B.C. coast, I would reject it."

For Palen, the announcement was particularly confounding.

Along with two co-authors, Palen wrote to Trudeau in the weeks prior to the pipeline announcement informing him of a new analysis that identified significant gaps in knowledge and research specifically on the impacts of Alberta oilsands crude, known as bitumen, on marine organisms.

A review of over 9,000 studies found not enough is known about the potential effects of an oil spill from the tankers that will be fed by the Trans Mountain pipeline to say with certainty the project is safe.

“The government’s words and use of the words ‘evidence-based decision-making’ are starting to be questioned by myself and others in the scientific community,” Palen said.

“I heard many of my colleagues wonder what the government really means by ‘evidence-based decision-making’ because those aren’t just empty words — they have a really specific meaning to those of us in science policy and in scientific fields.”

Palen said two important components of the scientific use of evidence are one, that the information is publicly available and preferably independently verified and two, that subsequent decisions are made on the basis of that evidence.

“That’s in contrast to making decisions and then subsequently backing up that decision by the selective use of science or evidence,” she said.

“That’s a big philosophical difference.”

Palen said the federal government does not make publicly available the information it bases its decisions on so there is no way to independently verify the data or research undergirding these major project approvals.

Kathleen Walsh, executive director for the science-advocacy group Evidence for Democracy, said that’s a big problem for a government that wants to present itself as evidence-based.

“If government is serious about these decisions being based on science, they need to make that kind of information open and available and they need to be transparent about it,” Walsh told DeSmog Canada.

When it comes to gaps in knowledge, like on the effects of bitumen in marine environments, making evidence-based decisions becomes even more problematic.

“It’s one thing to ignore the evidence that exists but it's another to completely ignore gaps in evidence and pretend they’re not there,” she said.

“So for the federal government to say these decisions are based on evidence or science is not necessarily truthful.”

Walsh said she doesn’t want to elide the progress this government has made on the science file, more generally.

“Certainly there have been some big wins for them in the last weeks on science,” Walsh said, referring to the announcement of a Chief Science Advisor position as well as new rules to prevent the muzzling of federal scientists.

“But we can’t get that confused with their record and say it’s perfect.”

And making those grand claims about science will become more difficult going forward when the Chief Science Advisor position is filled, Walsh said.

“That person is going to have to answer these really hard questions about evidence and government decisions. I’m really looking forward to seeing how that plays out.”

In addition to the introduction of a scientific advisor, Walsh said the federal government’s current review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is also a huge opportunity to start getting science right in the country, especially as it relates to major project approvals.

Aerin Jacob, a Liber Ero postdoctoral fellow in environmental studies at the University of Victoria, couldn’t agree more.

“One of my motivations for being involved in the environmental assessment review is it’s not a very sexy topic,” Jacob told DeSmog Canada. “A lot of people think it’s boring.”

The Act went underwent significant changes in 2012 under the Harper government that many say has left some of the nation’s most important environmental legislation toothless.

“This is an opportunity to take a look at the changes to the Act in 2012 and the ramifications those changes have had. And not just to repeal those changes, but to take a good look at what good environmental assessments can be and to make sure Canada is a leader in that regard.”

Jacob recently organized the creation and release of an open letter from nearly 2,000 young scientists and researchers to the federal government as part of the review, calling on the government to return scientific integrity to the environmental assessment process.

The letter, which Jacob presented to the expert review panel in Nanaimo this week, outlines five ways the federal government could improve scientific rigour in the assessment process, including the use of best available evidence, making information and data available to the public, evaluating cumulative impacts of projects and eliminating conflicts of interest.

Dr. Aerin Jacob speaks at a Before the Abstract event about her research in the Serengeti. Photo: Before the Abstract

“We see what happens when science takes a back seat in this process,” Jacob said, pointing to the “entirely preventable” tailings pond collapse at the Mount Polley mine in B.C. and the recent approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

“With something like the Kinder Morgan decision, there was a lot of concern that has been raised over the last couple of years about that process. Scientists and independent experts have said again and again the evidence being present there isn’t the best evidence, it doesn’t paint the whole picture.”

Jacob said the lack of transparency around the evidence the government used to makes it decision about the pipeline is “deeply concerning.”

“Although it’s possible there is other evidence the government is considering, it’s not evident because we can’t see it.”

“It’s like a black box of decision-making. That’s not scientifically rigorous.”

Jacob said what her and other young scientists and researchers are proposing isn’t radical.

“These aren’t crazy new ideas, to share that information and share how you arrive at a conclusion. This is what we’re taught since elementary school: show your work.”

Jacob said she feels when it comes to science, there is a culture change underway in Canada.

Scientists were eager to get involved in the environmental assessment review, she said.

In Nanaimo, Jacob told the panel young scientists like herself have had a “coming of age.”

“Muzzling of scientists, putting data in dumpsters — that was the norm” for her and other young scientists under the former government. 

“It was not a good time to be looking at a scientific career in Canada and we do not want that ever to be the case professionally or personally.”

“I really can’t underscore how big an opportunity this review is,” Jacob told DeSmog Canada. “It could influence everything about how we make decisions about the environment.”

Jacob said so many of the social concerns that have arisen around major projects like pipelines and LNG terminals could be resolved through a more robust assessment process, starting with greater transparency and rigour from the outset.

The federal expert panel will conclude its review of the environmental assessment act this week and will make recommendations to the federal government by the end of January 2017. A secondary process, which will include the input of a multi-interest advisory committee, will follow on the heels of the panel’s report.

“I really hope the panel will take a bold approach. We’re talking a major overhaul here. And I hope our elected officials have the courage to implement it.”

Image: Justin Trudeau at a Science North event in Sudbury, Ontario. Photo: Prime Minister's Photo Gallery

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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