a, From the BrainSTEM, Science & Technology

From the BrainSTEM: Discovering scientific serendipity in the upcoming general election

The last several years under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s term have been intolerable for the scientific community. Described by the media as the “War on science,” Harper has muzzled government scientists in an effort to control how and what information is disseminated to the public. These policies are a form of censorship. They have pushed Canada into a scientific recession where little information is exchanged and funding for certain programs has been cut or eliminated entirely. By 2017, Environment Canada’s budget will have decreased by 28.6 per cent, and considering their role in the conservation and restoration of Canadian landscapes, water, and wildlife, the effects this will have are worrisome.

Currently, federal scientists are required to acquire approval from a governmental communications officer (GCO) before discussing their work with the media. If they don’t, they risk losing their jobs. Spokespeople from governmental organizations such as Health and Environment Canada have refused to be interviewed to discuss matters such as radiation poisoning and global warming. And when media outlets try to contact specific scientists, they are often unable to get interviews. When The Canadian Press attempted to schedule an interview with Max Bothwell, a federal scientist who was conducting research on algae, they were met with checkpoints and hurdles. Bothwell had worked on Didymo, a species of algae that was potentially invasive, and his work was useful for environmentalists. The Canadian Press exchanged over 100 emails with 16 different GCOs to try to schedule a meeting with Bothwell. Ultimately, The Canadian Press ended up dropping the interview and published their article without any of Bothwell’s insight on the subject. 

These issues have shifted attitudes about researching in Canada. Dr. Robert Brownstone, a Canadian researcher who examines motor control pathways has shed light on paralysis and helped the lives of thousands. But roughly three months ago, Brownstone said that he would be leaving Canada to work in England. His reason: The Canadian federal government has prioritized funding applied research over more basic research.

“I think there are significant changes in our funding bodies and those changes are going to have significant impact on research and, more worrisome, on research training,” he said in an interview with CBC News. “Attitudes toward research by our federal government have not been particularly encouraging.”

In light of these issues, Evidence for Democracy—a non-partisan group that hopes to educate the public about issues such as the muzzling of federal scientists and funding allocation—approached the current party nominees with a questionnaire to evaluate their stances on certain issues in the scientific community. 

The Liberals have promised over $20 million towards national parks. The Green Party has promised $75 million to employ scientists at Environment Canada, Health Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans. The New Democratic Party (NDP) plans to implement a tax break for small businesses—an Innovation Tax—to help them invest in the equipment needed for research.  While the Conservative Party of Canada did not respond, Harper is not expected to change his policy.

For the most part, the Green Party, the NDP, and the Liberal Party of Canada have similar views and intentions. All three are committed to cleaning up Harper’s tyrannical policies on science. All three want to allow open scientific communication. This means recreating a government office specifically for advising the parliament in science related issues,  without requiring government checkpoints. This means no more GCO’s—their function will be changed into officers that advise the parliament and federal scientists. This means the reinstatement of the long form census, which provides necessary statistical data to the federal government, giving it a better idea on how to allocate taxes, fund, and plan certain programs.

If the newly elected party keeps their promises and makes the necessary changes, then the future of science in Canada is bright. If not, Canada risks losing some if its greatest minds to other countries where their work can be openly discussed, funded, and respected.

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