I like my science unmuzzled

Thanks to Kennedy Stewart for drafting this motion to be presented in the House of Commons (whenever they can actually get back to work…):

http://kennedystewart.ndp.ca/post/ndp-tables-plan-to-end-conservative-muzzling-of-federal-scientists

Let’s see our government show exactly how much it wants its scientists communicating with the public. Hopefully it will go better than the last time the topic of science came up in the house of commons. I, for one (not surprisingly), would be thrilled if this motion was passed and followed through on.

Update: September 20th, 2013: I just saw the op-ed by David Schindler in the Toronto Star regarding the Stand Up for Science protests that happened on Monday- his piece focuses primarily on government science muzzling, which was one of the focus points of the protests (and the focus of Kennedy’s motion). Very well written, and provides an excellent historic perspective, as well as the risks of keeping your scientists to their speaking points. You can read the op-ed here.

 

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This, Canada, is your new Minister of State for Science

cbcstandupforscience

Today, Canadian scientists and those who support science and access to the researchers they fund hit the streets in at least 17 Canadian cities, and Stood up for Science. The event got great media coverage, and was a very active topic on social media throughout the day, trending on twitter in a number of major Canadian cities, and across the country:

Predictably, the government put forward a few folks to speak to what great support they provide to the scientific community. Importantly, Greg Rickford, Minister of State for Science and Technology, gave a telling interview on Ottawa’s CBC radio morning. It’s here, and definitely worth a listen:

http://www.cbc.ca/player/AudioMobile/Ottawa%2BMorning/ID/2406516576/

I thought, “Great- what a fantastic opportunity for a preview of how our new Minister of State for Science and Technology will deal with these very important issues.”

Greg Rickford

This Minister of Science and Technology, like his Government’s policies limiting the abilities of its scientists to do their jobs, is for the dogs.

In his interview, my impression was that Greg Rickford came off as defensive and arrogant, refusing to answer the interviewer on a few points, speaking over her throughout and talking to her like she’s a child in a kindergarten class at one point. The interviewer maintained her professionalism throughout.

More disturbing than his poor manners was what Rickford actually says in the interview. A few bits are worth highlighting here, but again, I would encourage you to listen to the interview yourself.

1. 9:35. Greg Rickford agrees that the government has directed it’s research towards applied science. I don’t think anyone is disputing this, and I don’t think that applied science is a bad thing- it’s typically been the focus of what most government departments have in the past done (with the possible exception of NRC before the current government started making changes to that department). The problem is that not all science (even applied science) results in a gidget that you can sell. Lots of applied science is used to figure out the ways in which the workings of nature affect human populations, and that information is used to inform government policy on, say, what the cause of algal blooms in lakes is (based on government science). Or the reason that people’s children are suffering from mercury poisoning (based on research here by a Canadian PhD student). You can’t sell that, but ask people how much they value clean water and fish that won’t make them sick- probably ranks up there with the value of any gidget you might be able to market. Not only that, but these discoveries have saved governments around the world untold billions of dollars in health spending and environmental costs. Notably, the above examples are both applied science, but it’s science that the government no longer funds, after cutting funding to the Experimental Lakes Area and cutting the contaminants research program from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

2. Rickford seems happy to admit there are significant constraints on the means by which government scientists are restricted in the communication of their findings. A: 12:15: “Scientists are aware of what they should and shouldn’t be disclosing”- so it’s clear there are things we are being asked *not* to disclose when it comes to communicating our research. Glad that’s out in the open.

3. 13:43. When asked about the thousands of opportunities every year that government scientists have had to communicate their work through the scientific papers they publish, Rickford clarifies: “Publications are not press conferences… that’s not a telephone interview.” So true, Greg, and that’s a major part of the problem. The general public aren’t reading scientific papers, they listen to the news. So how do you get that government science to the people? According to Rickford, we give them our scientific papers. As Rickford asks the interviewer, with all that scientific publishing,11:56,  “How much freer (sic) could you be?” Free enough not to have had every media request I’ve ever had flatly denied by the communications department- I’d like to be more freer than that, Greg.

4. 14:09- the interviewer asks if government science publications are “censored” or edited by government departments. She’s likely referring to the publication rules like the ones I have to go through in my department, where a manager who’s not been involved in the work has the power not to sign the copyright release on a paper (and therefore keep it from being published) if they don’t like what it says. And here’s the most telling quote of the piece: “Scientists work for governments, universities and private institutions. Would you expect that anything that they did in terms of publications wouldn’t be guided in some way by some overarching policy of their respective employer? That would be true of universities, I would suspect, and it would be true of scientists working in the private sector”.

Greg, you suspect wrong. Unlike the private sector, No university I have ever been at vets the publications of its professors and students for “appropriate messaging” like your government does.

So there you have it- this is the guy running the show for Science and Technology in Canada for the next two years (at least). In the humble opinion of this scientist, the need for Canadians to Stand Up for Science is more apparent than ever.

Stand up for Science

The folks over at Evidence for Democracy (E4D, their clever acronym) have been busy over the summer. These are the same people that brought you the “Death of Evidence” rally last summer.

On September 16th, they are organizing rallies across the country to “Stand Up for Science“. Because this rally is right across the country, not just in Ottawa like Death of Evidence was, it has the potential to be quite huge. Perhaps we’ll even see a few muzzled scientists out and about at these events.

I tip my hat to Katie Gibbs and the whole E4D crew for keeping up the momentum around this issue.

The official announcement from E4D is below:

Fed up with the erosion of science in Canada? Want our government to support science in the public interest? Think that decisions should be based on evidence and facts instead of ideology? Join us on September 16th to Stand up for Science!

It’s time to stand up for science in the public interest in Canada. In recent years we have seen cuts to many important scientific institutions, science funding has shifted focus towards the commercialization of research, and government scientists have lost the ability to communicate their research to the public.

Science matters to Canadians. Good science, when coupled with good decision-making, keeps our water and air clean, keeps us healthy, keeps our food safe and prepares Canada for the future. Science in the public interest is crucial for our well-being and long-term prosperity.

To make the public aware of this, and to call on the Federal government to make a strong commitment to science in the public interest, we are organizing ‘Stand Up for Science’ rallies across the country on September 16th 2013.

It’s your future – make it your science.

What: Stand Up for Science rally

When: September 16, noon-1pm

Where: Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Notes: All are invited. Please bring a lab coat or other science paraphernalia if you have them and signs (the nerdier the better!)

RSVP on our website www.evidencefordemocracy.ca or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/639576056054837/

We need your help to make this event a success. The Death of Evidence rally last July had a huge impact. We want to put these issues back in the public eye and let our government know that we demand better science policies. To accomplish this, we need a big turnout at the rallies. Please come to a rally near you, and make sure to share this information with your friends and colleagues.

We will be calling on the Federal government to make a strong commitment to science in the public interest by:

(1)   Funding scientific research from basic science through to applied.

(2)   Using the best available science and evidence to make the best decisions.

(3)   Supporting the open communication of publicly funded science to the public, unless there are demonstrably good reasons for not doing so.