Monday, 23 September 2013

What's Political and What Shouldn't Be: Science in Canada

Last week protesters gathered in a number of Canadian cities to draw attention to the science policies of the current government. Their concerns are, according to the press, that the government is keeping scientists from communicating to the public, and also that it's defunding important scientific projects.

Here's my problem with this: the media reports are making two things on very different scales of problematic seem equivalent.

First, the money issue. If you read the second article linked to above, it's the main reason for the protests. Scientists aren't happy with the funding for science under the Harper government, particularly with regard to basic research. This is a legitimate complaint for scientists to make; they want to see Canada reap the benefits that come from having a strong research community and they see these cuts as threatening that.

We do live in a democracy, though, and the people of this country elected the Conservatives on a platform to cut government spending. So while it makes sense to argue that the cuts are ultimately going to hurt the country (an argument I am on board with, as it turns out), it's also important to realize that in this regard the government is, in fact, doing what they said they would do during the election campaign.

The muzzling issue (which is the main reason for the protests according to the first article linked to above) is an order of magnitude more serious. This isn't about saving government money. Public money was spent on research, then once the results were in the government demanded that they and they alone see the them, before deciding what to pass on to the public after suitable editing.

Selectively releasing results is a form of dishonesty; it's no different than when pharmaceutical companies release studies that show their products in a good light and bury ones that point to potential risks. When certain research outcomes are suppressed the government is, as a whole, giving the public a misleading picture.

This is an issue that should transcend political affiliation. Whether you believe in big government or small, decision makers need the clearest picture they can get from the people the public is paying to investigate some of the most pressing issues facing the country.

It's no secret that the Conservative government and the science community have been at odds. By both occupation and political leaning I am on the side of the science community, but this is a bigger issue than just some professional researchers wanting job security. Ultimately the question is this: Is the government is interested in getting the best answer to the questions that matter to policy, whether or not those answers line up with political ideology? The alternative is a government which cares about protecting their image, even if it means wilfully distorting the research the public paid for.

I'm not saying that cutting the funds to science is a good thing, or that scientists are wrong to go out and engage the public in the need for science funding. That is how you build democratic support for your position. But by conflating the funding and the muzzling, these latest protests and the media reporting them have watered down an important message about the way this government treats public research like the property of the Conservative Party. That's unacceptable, and it should have been the focus last week.

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