DAVID SUZUKI: Science must stay free from political interference

B.C. salmon, 'muzzling' scientists

While doing salmon-genetics research at the Pacific Biological Station on Vancouver Island, federal fisheries scientist Kristi Miller discovered that a virus may be killing large numbers of Fraser River sockeye before they reach their spawning grounds.

The research was published in the prestigious journal Science, but Miller wasn’t allowed to speak to the media about it. The government’s Privy Council Office said this was to avoid “influencing” the ongoing federal inquiry into the Fraser sockeye decline. But it’s hard to believe the Cohen Commission wouldn’t want to encourage discussion about its area of inquiry. And it’s in the public interest for the science to be available to a wide audience.

This is just one sign that science is playing second fiddle to political concerns in Canada and the U.S. Recently, we’ve seen more “muzzling” of scientists, funding cuts, and an increasing disregard for science in policy-making and public conversation. The U.S. has seen calls to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and the rise of climate change deniers in national politics.

Last September, the head of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, which represents science journalists, spoke out against the “unacceptable political interference” in how government science is communicated. Now, everything federal scientists say to the media must be approved by political staff. They are not allowed to deviate from approved “media lines.”

The government has also slashed funding for climate change research, jeopardizing our ability to assess risks to human health, infrastructure, and the environment. And in early August, it announced that more than 700 Environment Canada employees face the axe in the coming months. According to the Hill Times, the affected workers include “100 physical scientists, 19 meteorologists, 45 computer scientists, chemists, biologists and engineers.” Fisheries and Oceans Canada and National Research Council staff have also received layoff notices. The cuts seriously jeopardize the ability of government departments to provide effective leadership and public science when it’s needed more than ever.

Our blinkered approach to science at home is bad enough, but we’re also gaining an unenviable reputation abroad. Canada has been criticized in recent years for hindering rather than advancing global efforts to combat climate change. In June, Canada opposed a plan to classify chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance at the UN Rotterdam Convention, despite admitting that the science is sound. We are, of course, a major exporter of this deadly material. Fifty countries have banned it for domestic use, including Canada. And the government has spent millions removing it from buildings, including Parliament.

This scientific antipathy could not come at a worse time.

As global ecosystems decline, and with them our air, water, soil and energy, we face many serious decisions about the fuels we use, the food we eat, how we get around — perhaps every aspect of the way we live. But powerful interests from all quarters are making themselves heard. We are told one thing and then another, and in the resulting confusion we sometimes throw up our hands and don’t know who or what to believe.

We need all the options on the table, and some way of evaluating which ones are credible and will serve us best as a society and as a species. Good science is the best available tool we have to do this. It knows no political allegiance or cultural sympathy. It must withstand rigorous evaluation and testing. It is always being modified or even tossed out because it is constantly tested and replaced when better science emerges.

When we combine these strengths with foresight, ingenuity, and reason, we are best prepared for the challenges ahead. Attempts to control or limit public science are not just ideologically suspect, they are often counterproductive and can be hugely destructive.

When we’re making decisions that may call for compromise and sacrifice, when we’re asking people and nations to change their habits, when we’re trying to wean ourselves off the dirty, unsustainable energy that fuels our consumer society, we want and need to know our leaders are committed to acting on the best information available.

At the very least, that means letting scientists talk about their work. But it also means giving our experts the resources they need to do their jobs. It means a frank and open discussion about problems and solutions. And it means putting the public interest above political concerns.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Please also see:

Hill Times: Gov’t science cuts: http://www.thehilltimes.ca/page/view/envirocanada-08-08-2011

Scientists Warn of Serious Implications of Cuts to Research Granting Councils: http://www.caut.ca/pages.asp?page=790&lang=1

Canadian Science Writers’ Association accuses gov’t of manipulating science news: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2010/09/29/federal-scientists-media-government.html

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