Death of evidence

    Changes to Canadian science raise questions that the government must answer.

    The sight last week of 2,000 scientists marching on Ottawa's Parliament Hill highlighted a level of unease in the Canadian scientific community that is unprecedented in living memory.

    The lab-coated crowd of PhD students, postdocs, senior scientists and their supporters staged a mock funeral for the 'death of evidence'. They said that the conservative government of prime minister Stephen Harper intends to suppress sources of scientific data that would refute what they see as pro-industry and anti-environment policies. Their list of alleged offences against science and scientific inquiry is lengthy and sobering.

    It is important to note that the Harper government has increased science and technology spending every year since it took power in 2006, and has made a serious and successful attempt to attract top researchers to Canada. It has also set its sights on bolstering applied research, an area in which Canada has been relatively weak.

    “Scientific expertise and experience cannot be chopped and changed as the mood suits.”

    Nonetheless, the critics' specific complaints do give cause for deep concern — which is borne out by a close look at the specifics of the Harper budget that was passed into law late last month. In an effort to funnel more research money to commercialization and to erase the Canadian deficit by 2015, the government plans to cut the Research Tools and Instruments Grants Program (RTI), the main equipment-funding scheme for basic researchers, and to jettison the 24-year-old National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE), an independent source of expert advice to the government on sustainable economic growth. The government has also substantially weakened key laws that protect fish species and that require environmental assessments of development projects.

    Of paramount concern for basic scientists is the elimination of the Can$25-million (US$24.6-million) RTI, administered by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), which funds equipment purchases of Can$7,000–150,000. An accompanying Can$36-million Major Resources Support Program, which funds operations at dozens of experimental-research facilities, will also be axed. Canadian researchers have already warned the NSERC of 'drastic and irreversible' effects on the country's fundamental scientific research.

    Even world-class facilities have not been spared. The government is closing the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Lab (PEARL), located 1,100 kilometres from the North Pole and one of only three stations that keep a close watch on the polar atmosphere. The move comes just as data from the fast-changing Arctic climate are most needed. Another research station will be built to replace it, the government says, opening in 2017 — twice as far from the region it is supposed to monitor.

    Equally disturbing is the proposed elimination next year of the internationally renowned Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) — a collection of 58 lakes and a field station in northwestern Ontario that has operated since 1968 as a natural laboratory. Work at the ELA has produced important evidence on the effects of acid rain and led to the discovery that phosphates from household detergents cause algal blooms. It has elucidated the impacts on fish of mercury and shown how wetland flooding for hydroelectricity leads to increased production of greenhouse gases.

    It is hard to believe that finance is the true reason for these closures. PEARL costs the government about Can$1.5 million a year, and the ELA Can$2 million. The savings from eliminating the NRTEE would come to Can$5 million — all from a total science and technology budget of some Can$11 billion. Critics say that the government is targeting research into the natural environment because it does not like the results being produced.

    Instead of issuing a full-throated defence of its policies, and the thinking behind them, the government has resorted to a series of bland statements about its commitment to science and the commercialization of research. Only occasionally does the mask slip — one moment of seeming frankness came on the floor of the House of Commons in May, when foreign-affairs minister John Baird defended the NRTEE's demise by noting that its members “have tabled more than ten reports encouraging a carbon tax”.

    Governments come and go, but scientific expertise and experience cannot be chopped and changed as the mood suits and still be expected to function. Nor can applied research thrive when basic research is struggling. If the Harper government has valid strategic reasons to undermine vital sectors of Canadian science, then it should say so — its people are ready to listen. If not, it should realize, and fast, that there is a difference between environmentalism and environmental science — and that the latter is an essential component of a national science programme, regardless of politics.

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    Death of evidence. Nature 487, 271–272 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/487271b

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