Free science from political interference

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

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 through 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 with 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.

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.”

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.

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 what to believe.

Good science is the best available tool we have. 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.

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.

 

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