The Assault on Science

Why Canadians-particularly Albertans-should be concerned about our government-led war on research

By Naomi K Lewis

By May 2012 morale was low throughout Canada’s scientific community—and then the country’s scientists received a swift kick where it counts. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced that, before a year went by, they would pull funding and close the Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora, Ontario. At the University of Ottawa, Katie Gibbs, almost finished her Ph.D. in conservation biology, was already concerned the Harper government’s attitude toward applied research did not bode well for her field, the raison d’être of which, she says, is to affect policy. The ELA’s closure was her breaking point. At the ELA—directed for two decades by David Schindler, who went on to become the Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta—scientists experimented on entire lakes. Schindler’s work there helped make the world take notice of acid rain and demonstrated the ecologically devastating effect of phosphates, leading to their ban from detergents. This unique and vital resource for environmental scientists and citizens alike cost Canadians only $2-million annually.

Gibbs, along with a few other grad students and faculty, organized a rally on Parliament Hill; they perceived the closure as the latest attack in the Harper government’s war on science—specifically, on any evidence that might threaten the government’s ideological and economic agendas. The “Death of Evidence” event in July 2012, at which Gibbs and her associates staged a mock funeral, complete with coffin, was not the intimate gathering they’d envisioned—some 2,000 participants showed up and national and international media took note. The rally was so successful that people kept asking Gibbs what was next. What was the next step toward resuscitating evidence from its tomb under the federal government?

After defending her dissertation, Gibbs decided to work on this issue full time, and, with some of her fellow Death of Evidence organizers, founded the national not-for-profit Evidence for Democracy, which advocates the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making. Despite its rather significant airtime, Gibbs says the assault on public science—that is, science conducted by government employees—may be difficult for the Canadian public to follow because it has played out over many years and no single incident seems terribly dire: “It’s only when you put them all together and look at the full timeline of events that you see this is really a systematic attempt to stifle public science.”

Our leaders are ignoring, distorting and stifling scientific research especially about the environment.

The current status of science and evidence in Canada is dire—and no field is more under attack than environmental science. With the country’s most glaring source of tension between economy and (potential) evidence right in our midst, no one should be more concerned than Albertans.

The “Evidence for Democracy” website provides just the kind of full timeline Gibbs thought the public needed, highlighting key events beginning with November 2007’s new Environment Canada policy requiring communications officers to mediate all media interviews with scientists.

Since then, journalists have struggled for access to public scientists, sometimes only hearing back days after a request, when the article in question has already been published. Ottawa-based Mike De Souza, who covers energy and environment for Postmedia News, says it goes without saying that accessing government scientists has become difficult under the current government. Reporters are often asked to send their questions in advance of an interview and to explain what the story will address. Any journalist understands that a good interview doesn’t work that way: The answer to one question prompts further questions, and the whole conversation determines the direction of the story. Worse, a reporter’s emailed questions often receive answers attributed to, but not written by, the scientist in question (and that reek of PR). Sometimes journalists don’t hear back at all. De Souza was writing a story in February about groundwater contamination from the oil sands and requested an interview with a scientist from Natural Resources Canada about research under the federal and Alberta governments’ Integrated Oil Sands Monitoring Program. As of the end of July, De Souza had yet to get any such scientist on the phone.

“It’s a fundamental issue of our democracy,” says Gibbs. “On the one hand, this is public research that we pay for through our tax dollars, so we have a right to know what that research is…. And on the other hand… having an informed public is really the foundation of a healthy democracy, and you can’t have that when this research is not getting out and when the government is tightly controlling what does get out to the public.”

And tightly controlling they are. We’ve witnessed several high-profile cases in which scientists were prevented from speaking about the potentially devastating evidence they had demonstrated—Kristi Miller of the DFO on the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon; David Tarasick of Environment Canada on a hole twice the size of Ontario in the ozone layer over the Arctic; not to mention Canada’s public scientists being trailed by media relations officers at April 2012’s Polar Year conference in Montreal—but as Gibbs says, those cases can easily appear isolated and extreme. Perhaps more disturbing, she proposes, is that even journalists working on “mundane, non-exciting things like snowfall patterns and bison genes, that are absolutely not controversial at all… are still not allowed to get access.” De Souza confirms that he runs into roadblocks whenever he tries to get a scientist from any federal government department on the phone, for any story.

Given this dearth of available evidence, there’s plenty of room to flood media with manipulative PR. You can tell there’s a problem when government and industry increase their TV and Internet ads about a particular issue, says Bill Donahue, an environmental biologist, ecologist and lawyer who works for Edmonton non-profit Water Matters. And we’re seeing an all-time high for ads touting Canada’s alleged environmental stewardship, especially pertaining to the fossil-fuels industry. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver announced his department intends to spend $16.5-million on ads this year. The NDP says this represents a 7,000 per cent increase to Natural Resources’ ad budget over 2010–2011. Such messaging may not entirely convince the public, Donahue says, but it clouds the issue, and “if we can confuse people, then they don’t really understand where the truth lies. And—well, it’s business. It comes down to billons of dollars, and energy. Unfortunately.”

Government PR might not be entirely convincing the public. [But] if you can confuse people, then they don’t really understand where the truth lies.” Bill Donahue, biologist, ecologist and lawyer.

In February the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and the national non-profit Democracy Watch submitted to federal information commissioner Suzanne Legault the report Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy, along with a request to formally investigate the Harper government’s silencing of federal scientists. The report consists of arguments meant to show that the federal government’s communications policies are illegal because they hamper the public’s rights as laid out in Canada’s Access to Information Act. Legault agreed to investigate seven departments: Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources, Defence, the National Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Treasury Board Secretariat.

The Harper government has offered no defence—only denials. As Legault took on her investigation, Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, informed Postmedia science reporter Margaret Munro about Environment Canada’s 1,200 media interviews in the preceding year, and of the government’s annual 2,000-plus scientific publications. Goodyear’s director of communications, Michele-Jamali Paquette, told Munro, “We reject the accusations that we are muzzling scientists.” She defended the communications policy and argued that government scientists, as civil servants, “don’t own the intellectual property for their work.”

Paquette did not respond to my request for an interview. I asked in the same email for a breakdown of interviews granted with federally employed scientists over the last five years—who talked to whom, about what. A few days later, I received an unsigned response from a “media relations” email address. “We understand that research findings and their benefits must be effectively communicated and shared with Canadians,” the email said. “The numbers show that not only does this Government stand behind its scientists; we are making more of the data they generate available to Canadians than ever before.” Such is what journalists receive when we ask for facts. Maclean’s magazine received an almost identical response when seeking insight from Goodyear and Paquette in May.

As far as Canadian journalists and our readers are concerned, public science—evidence accrued with our tax dollars—may as well lie buried alive under the Parliament buildings. But Donahue says public scientists run into roadblocks far beyond their relations with the media; they can be held up by red tape when applying for funding to conduct their research and even when attempting to publish their research. Gibbs says the government’s total budget for scientists has stayed more or less the same, but that they have eliminated many science positions in the last few years, reducing the amount of research undertaken. Meanwhile, they have shifted funds, “commercializing research that’s done in Canada.”

That means money is diverted away from programs such as the Experimental Lakes Area and toward “the manufacture of widgets to sell,” as Schindler, now a high-profile advocate for scientific integrity, puts it. He rages against the shift from “curiosity-based” research, arguing that environmental-research programs such as the ELA save billions of dollars by circumventing large-scale environment damage. “They [the government] don’t understand that some expenses [help] avoid expensive reclamation, to say nothing of societal and environmental benefits,” he says.

Thomas Duck, associate professor of physics and atmospheric science at Dalhousie University, stresses that Environment Canada exists to monitor environment conditions, give us insight into what’s going on in our environment and protect the health and safety of Canadians. “By eliminating those capabilities, they are, in a very real sense, putting our health and safety at risk,” he says. And Environment Canada eliminates those possibilities partly by diverting resources, as Duck experienced first-hand with his work at the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory in Eureka, Nunavut, which was recently closed due to funding cuts. “A couple of springs ago, we saw the first-ever hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic,” he says. “The government responded by shutting down the ozone research program at Environment Canada.”

Duck stresses that government scientists are responsible for vital research that university-employed scientists simply cannot undertake. “It’s not really fair to say that if the government can’t do it, then the academic sector can,” he explains. Environment Canada has a mandate for environmental protection, which requires long-term—sometimes decades-long—systematic measurements. Meanwhile an important mandate for many academics is teaching students how to be researchers, and that usually means taking on research projects of three to five years.

Once a scientist has acquired funding and undertaken her research, she is still not necessarily free to make her findings public—not through the media, and now not even in peer-reviewed journals. In February the DFO established a new policy that requires supervisors to sign off on researchers’ papers after they are accepted by peer-reviewed journals—which means, of course, that the department can put the brakes on publication.

Moreover, scientists’ ability to affect policy is impeded because they apparently have no influence on decision makers: When political leaders, federal and Albertan, talk about the impact of major development, Donahue says, their facts are usually wrong. This spring, for instance, Gary Goodyear defended the ELA’s closure, stating that according to the latest science, we don’t need whole lakes to discern the impacts of contaminants. “That is absolutely 100 per cent wrong,” says Donahue. “It’s the opposite of what the latest science tells us.” In fact, by cutting funding to the Experimental Lakes Area, the government undermined scientists’ capacity to test the impact of development-related contaminants on water. The facts may have been lost somewhere in the layers of bureaucracy between Goodyear and any actual scientist. Either that, says Donahue, or Goodyear was outright lying.

Which—either way—brings us back to the importance of media access: With so many layers of bureaucracy between scientists and the ministers they work under, the media provides the best way for scientists to communicate, even to those ministers. Change can happen when evidence of harm becomes public knowledge and politicians are forced to act, Donahue says.

Our federal government has isolated scientists from the media and thereby the public, has redirected research toward the goal of immediate profit, and has even begun creating policies with the power to prevent dissemination of information within the scientific community—and all Canadians should take notice. But, for Albertans, the tarry black elephant in the room dwells up by Fort McMurray.

With Canada’s economy heavily invested in fossil-fuel development, many departments suffering muzzling and cuts are linked to the oil sands. For instance, Duck says, we’ve seen a major scaling back of regulations that govern where and when pipelines can be built, thanks to radical changes to the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. In fact, Duck says, on June 18, 2012, the omnibus “Budget” Bill C-38 replaced the Environmental Assessment Act outright, and the next day 3,000 environmental assessments across Canada were cancelled. About 600 of those were related to fossil-fuel development.

The Harper government’s inept attempt to bolster the oil sands’ international image is certainly not doing industry any favours. In general, Canada’s international reputation, in terms of environmental stewardship, is tanking. Duck argues “the government of Canada has done the fossil-fuels industry in this country a tremendous disservice. Two years ago, pipelines weren’t in the news. The federal government, through their reckless cuts to science and through their demolition of our environmental protections… have caused the fossil-fuel industry a world of trouble.”

While the federal government is responsible for determining the environmental impacts of fossil fuel development, so too is Alberta’s provincial government—specifically Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD). While the federal government has received a litany of bad press about its communications policies, our provincial government has stayed pretty well under the radar. Jessica Potter, ESRD’s acting director of communications, says the department has no formal policy regarding scientists’ dealings with the media; that the department encourages its scientists to speak to reporters and provides training to help those experts overcome nervousness and inaccessible, jargon-heavy explanations. Communications staff do act as spokespeople quite often, she concedes, but mostly because the experts are not as comfortable giving interviews and have other work to do. The department keeps track of interviews, she says, so they can post the answers to commonly asked questions online.

And the province does have a better reputation than the feds among journalists—though not as much among scientists, who say the province has its own methods of skirting evidence that bodes ill for the oil sands. The government of Alberta’s tactics include allowing scientists Donahue identifies as “professional expert witnesses” to testify at hearings (these are scientists who make their living defending industry interests, who often haven’t published in years or decades, says Donahue). Then again, some scientists say the province has pushed the federal government further toward environmental responsibility and transparent monitoring than it would have gone otherwise—although the province “needs to push harder,” says Duck. “It’s clear that they [the provincial government] want to get a much better handle on the environmental risks associated with the oil sands,” he says. “And that makes a lot of sense, because those environmental risks will largely be borne by Albertans in the future. Albertans have a real serious vested interest in knowing what this [oil sands development] is going to do to their beautiful province.”

In spring 2012, federal Minister of the Environment Peter Kent and Alberta’s ESRD minister, Diana McQueen, announced the Integrated Oil Sands Monitoring Plan, a joint project between the two governments. To what extent the federal and provincial governments are true partners in this project is difficult to determine; Schindler worked on the plan, and says though Alberta Environment claims to be in the lead on the project, he hasn’t seen much evidence of that in the field. In fact, he says, though Alberta Environment had one person at the table, that person did not contribute or say much. In any case, on April 22 of this year—Earth Day, of course—Kent and McQueen launched an online “Joint Data Portal,” which, Kent announced, “provides the public with ongoing access to the credible scientific data collected… and the methodology used to produce it.” He added, “The scope and volume of monitoring data will continue to increase through to 2015.”

No one denies that the plan, and the portal, are encouraging developments. “A step in the right direction” was the phrase I heard again and again. But—there are a lot of buts. After the Alberta and federal governments announced their Integrated Oil Sands Monitoring Plan, Duck points out, they cut a number of the capabilities needed to implement it. He names ozone research, measurements by aircraft and smokestack sampling as examples. The word among scientists is that we can’t know yet how useful the available information will prove.

“It’s a fundamental issue of democracy. This is public research; we pay for it through our tax dollars.”

They also point out that monitoring is not the same as actually taking action. The plan includes no guidelines for what to do should problems be discovered. Perhaps the biggest concern is the monitoring plan’s lack of third-party oversight—though, according to Potter, Alberta is currently building an arms-length monitoring agency that will provide such oversight for all environmental monitoring in the province, beginning in the oil sands region, and including the joint oil sands monitoring program. The government intends to have the agency in place by the end of 2013, she says.

Schindler, for one, isn’t holding his breath. The Alberta government has promised the incorporation of an independent monitoring panel three years in a row, he says, and it still hasn’t happened. In his estimation, the chances of that agency ever coming together are 50/50. Donahue voices a similar skepticism. When things need to happen quickly, they do, he says; the province is dragging its feet on this one.

Furthermore, access to raw data is not particularly useful without access to the scientists who collected that data, who can explain their collection methods—nor is that raw data interpretable for most lay people, including journalists. And those scientists who could explain the data, of course, are difficult or impossible to reach, as Mike De Souza has experienced. Schindler says he hopes the portal will improve, but that it “right now seems like part of the muzzling problem” and “largely a dumping ground and another propaganda portal,” mostly aimed at impressing the US. “And it’s not working,” he adds.

Why propaganda? The information portal’s “Latest Data” page assures citizens that, despite the oil sands emitting contaminants, “Overall, the levels of contaminants in water and air are not a [cause] for concern.” Once again, PR-speak—a soothing, unquantifiable statement, particularly alarming attached to an ostensible database of unmediated information. “There is no evidence given to support this statement,” says Duck. “A scientist wouldn’t do this.” In fact, he reminds us, the only way to really gather such evidence would require experiments in actual lakes rather than in labs; that is, it would require northern Alberta waters to be studied as closely as those in the Experimental Lakes Area. Plus, monitoring has only recently begun; for 30 or 40 years no such efforts were made, so there’s no baseline to serve as a comparison. Years will pass before evidence shows that the environment is or isn’t changing, and how, and why.

When the government denies any significant impact, “Well, they’re lying,” says Donahue. “That’s the simple way to say it.”

The big picture is that our political leaders—federal and provincial—are wilfully ignoring, distorting and stifling scientific research, especially about human impact on the environment. They’re also impeding dissemination of the results of that research and failing to apply those results to policy-making.

“Policy development is insanely complicated,” Duck acknowledges, but “trying to cut out science, trying to cut out the way that we discern truth from fiction, is very regressive. It’s very backwards thinking. And I don’t think this country wants to go back in time.” According to Schindler’s picture, though, Canada has already time-travelled to the Dark Ages. Schindler says he has never seen any country exhibit “such a shallow understanding of what science entails.” In his inimitable disgusted tone, he adds, “Even three or four years ago, I could never believe Canada could sink this low. We’re at the bottom of the barrel.”

So, are we Canadians, we Albertans, doomed—is evidence-based policy-making really dead? Will we stand by, soothed by ads featuring lush green boreal landscapes, while every last penny, every last drop of oil, is pushed and squeezed and sucked from the land, leaving who knows what mess? Not if we pay more attention, Donahue says, and stop drinking the Kool-Aid. Advocates such as Katie Gibbs and Bill Donahue and outspoken academics such as David Schindler and Tom Duck are working hard to inform us.

We need to demand the resuscitation of public science, to demand facts instead of propaganda—we need to hold our leaders, federal and provincial, to account.

Naomi K. Lewis is a former associate editor of Alberta Views. She is also the co-editor of Shy: An Anthology (UAP, 2013).


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