Canada’s War on “Inconvenient Science”

by User Not Found | May 12, 2015

This is a guest post written by Sigma Xi member Alan Emery. He wrote this post to expand on his input to a conversation among Sigma Xi members about the "war on science."

Canadian flag

Science is only threatening when the results are inconvenient to government or special interests. 

Canada’s economy has always been primarily extractive, but the current governmental focus is on fossil fuels, especially northern Alberta’s tar (oil) sands, rapid development of which has provided enormous economic benefit to Canada. Scientists noted the pollution, displacement of indigenous peoples, global warming effects, and the effects that will come of plans to situate pipelines across prime aquatic habitats and forest regions. Despite early warning signals, Canada’s present government has relentlessly promoted growth of this valuable resource. At the same time, voices of Canadian government scientists have almost been silenced on climate change, environmental protection and conservation policies or legislation, fossil fuel use, and especially on Canada’s tar sands, Arctic policies, nuclear safety, fisheries, tar sands leaks, even maternal health. 

We watched as many large and important governmental research libraries were shuttered. Reports, books, and records were taken to dumps and burned. Advisory councils and positions were eliminated in scientific areas relevant to ecosystems and global warming:  circumpolar ambassador; Canadian ambassador for the environment; national science advisor. Advisory councils on science, biotechnology, and technology were consolidated into one council, which now reports only confidentially. We lost Arctic ozone research and monitoring, maintenance of ice core archives, of ocean contaminants, many experimental farms, our marine toxicology program, and so on. 

Elimination of the Experimental Lakes Area attracted worldwide attention. It is an internationally renowned freshwater research facility. Fortunately other sponsors stepped in, and it is presently run by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, an NGO.

Canada’s aggressive destruction of such “inconvenient science” has included changes to laws that favour select industries but are destructive scientifically. For example, changes to the Canada Fisheries Act eliminated environmental protection from all aquatic species except those valuable economically, and effectively removed ecosystem-based management of Canadian aquatic resources. A new act removed habitat protection from hundreds of thousands of lakes and rivers. 

But “war” on science? There’s no war unless both sides are fighting. Remarkably, science is not fighting back. Instead, we complain about and protest the aggressive destruction of science the government believes is inconvenient to its interests. We took to the streets wearing white lab coats, wrote open letters to politicians, spoke on TV and radio, and reacted on social media. It didn’t work. We can’t fire or muzzle politicians, and we can’t unilaterally take away their funding. So how can science defend itself when it has no power, authority, or even inclination to retaliate in kind?

What would a real war look like if scientists were to fight back? Science needs powerful allies that do have the power to support science and to effect changes in policy and funding. Science must reach out to create allies by proactively developing public discourse that enlightens and enlivens without creating impossibly polarized positions. It is not enough to speak only with students, granting agencies, and university administration. Science may not be the arbiter of social justice, moral values, economic ideals, or spiritual values, but as scientists we can provide solid factual information and informed predictions based on logic and evidence. We can provide realistic risk assessments and “what if” scenarios. We can personally contribute at all levels and in all aspects of decision-making. To do that, we must bring the public into a two-way, even personal conversation about our activities, our hopes, fears, results and their implications. We can ally with science museums, and offer science education on a popular basis to the broad general public from a foundation of research, professional-level interpretation, exhibits, and outreach programs.

Some, but not many scientists are both active and effective with the public. Each time one of us interacts with news media, science has an opportunity to gain allies. But academia has not recognized we should be at war. Instead, the very structure of academia discourages public interactions. Academia rewards formal teaching, refereed technical papers, and internal committee work for hiring, promotion, and tenure. Time spent on outreach subtracts from a professor’s ability to move through the ranks. In fact, academic staff who attempt to reach out to the public are often pilloried by their colleagues, accused of losing touch with real research, or of misrepresenting the principles of science by over-simplifying. If science is to defend itself, it must dramatically restructure to effectively reward those who can and do develop alliances with broad interested and supportive publics.

Fortunately there is a not-so-impossible mechanism to restructure our reward system so that we can effectively fight back. Those folks who sit on hiring committees, judge grant proposals, decree promotion and tenure – they’re not bureaucrats, they are all academics! We can decide that science outreach is vitally important and must become a part of the criteria for hiring, promotion, and granting tenure. 

As Pogo wisely told us, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.” 

Alan Emery is an emeritus member of the University of Toronto Sigma Xi Chapter. He lives in Ontario, Canada. 

Attribution for photo of Canadian flag: By Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States (Canadian Flag) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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