Rebels With a Cause: Scientists Fight Back in the War on Science

It has been called “Stephen Harper’s war on science” in Canada and just plain "war on science" in the US. But whatever you call it, scientists everywhere are frustrated with how scientific research is treated in North America. With the American sequester cuts looming on the horizon and the Canadian government openly admitting that it is no longer interested in funding "discovery science," scientists are feeling accused, cut-off and shut-up.

It is becoming a trend in the United States and Canada to treat scientists like nay-sayers or rebels without a cause instead of like respected public figures. In cases where scientific evidence doesn't support industry, governments in both countries have allowed corporations and oil companies to cast doubts on research.

By dirt digging into scientists’ private lives and creating false parallel science, the pursuit of doing good science has become a complicated job. Character defamation and false research has not only offered enough leeway to proceed on potentially dangerous projects, it has done endless damage to the reputation of the scientific community.

Though President Obama promised otherwise when he “told scientists, engineers and doctors that his goal is to reach for a public and private research and development investment that we haven’t seen since the space race.”

The reality is, the 2013 sequester is expected to be devastating to many non-defense agencies. The National Institutes of Health will sustain funding cuts of around $1.6 billion, the National Science Foundation is losing $283 million, and the American Association of Science is looking at a cut of about $9.3 billion.

Similarly, the Canadian scientific research and development agency, the National Research Council (NRC), said earlier this month that they intent to perform only research that has “social or economic gain.”  They announced this as a departure from “discovery science,” which “comes from what scientists think is important,” to a focus on “innovation.” John McDougal, President of the NRC, said “scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”

The attack doesn’t stop at funding, however. For years, government scientists in Canada, working in areas such as Natural Resources, have “need[ed] permission from their minister’s office before they can go to the media with their results. [The ministry] then has say over whether they can talk to the media or not.”

The complaint that Government has been “muzzling” scientists has prompted the federal commissioner’s office to launch a full-scale investigation into "Stephen Harper’s War on Science." Since April this year, Suzanne Legault’s office has been looking into “the systematic efforts of the government of Canada to obstruct the right of the media—and through them, the Canadian public—to timely access to government scientists.”  Seven federal departments and agencies, from Environment Canada to the National Research Council of Canada will be investigated.

Scientists too are taking matters into their own hands and they are doing so by banding together against suppression. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) at the Center for Science and Democracy, in the US and in Canada are hard-working organizations that aim to help the public to “distinguish evidence from political positioning.” 

Image from the Union of Concerned Scientists anti-science cartoon competition.

Biologist Jeff Hutchings spoke out against the "muzzling" of scientists at the Death of Evidence demonstration on parliament hill last July.

He said: “When you inhibit the communication of science, you inhibit science. When you inhibit science, you inhibit the acquisition of knowledge. Government control over the ability of society to acquire knowledge has alarming precedence. An iron curtain is being drawn between science and society."

It’s not a good time to cut funding to scientific research.

“The challenges are only increasing,” Andrew Rosenberg of the UCS said in a recent interview. ”It’s not as if the issues of trying to maintain the health of the oceans is diminishing." The UCS has established a campaign to draw attention to scientific research in fields like Global Warming, Food and Agriculture, and Scientific Integrity.

Their tagline is: “Strengthening American Democracy by advancing the essential role of science, evidence-based decision making, and constructive debate as a means to improve the health, security and prosperity of all people.”

Image Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists cartoon competition via coExist

Elizabeth Hand is a novelist and educator in the fields of writing and science. She holds an MFA in Creative…

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