“Save our science”

Scientists and activists rally at the U of W

During the lunch hour of Sep. 16, science supporters across Manitoba gathered outside of the University of Winnipeg for the Stand Up For Science rally. Seventeen such events were held across the country that day; the campaign brought scientists and concerned citizens together to voice the need for continued science funding in Canada.

The rally’s first speaker, Diane Orihel, highlighted three critical points of concern: the elimination of important programs in the basic sciences and environmental sciences; the “oppressive” policies restricting government-sponsored scientists from making public statements; and the lack of attention to scientific evidence in making public policy decisions. Orihel, a University of Alberta ecologist and activist known for her aggressive campaign to save the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in 2012, was one of the Winnipeg event’s organizers. Orihel opened by saying that “something terrible has happened to science in Canada.”

She elaborated: “attacks on science [ . . . ] will damage the integrity of our ecosystems,” and highlighted the cuts that have been affecting environmental science.

“Canada’s Titanic of science has hit a political iceberg,” Orihel said. “Manitoba has been hit especially hard by these cuts.”

The rally’s organizers compiled a list of the “Top 10 hits to science in Manitoba and Canada.” These were: the cancellation of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO) Aquatic Contaminants Research Program; cuts to Parks Canada; cutbacks at Statistics Canada; the closure of the National Research Council Institute for Biodiagnostics; cuts to Libraries and Archives Canada; policies preventing government scientists from speaking to the press; closure of the Cereal Research Center; cuts to funding of basic science, such as National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), downsizing of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and closure of the ELA.

The second speaker was Scott Forbes, an ecologist at the University of Winnipeg. He stressed the importance of government scientists, who have resources and authority that academic researchers do not.

“The problem is that sometimes the politicians don’t like answers that the scientists provide,” said Forbes. “So the government of today has found the simple answer: get rid of and muzzle the scientists that are telling the inconvenient truths.”

Sarah Semmler, a graduate student in biology at the University of Manitoba, also spoke at the rally. “[We] sometimes forget that we are part of an ecosystem, but we are part of an ecosystem, and every action that we take has an impact on the environment and on the life within,” she said. “Evidence from the scientific community has been silenced in favour of increased production.”

Semmler went on to criticize Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol. She concluded with a quote from Canadian scientist and activist David Suzuki:

“We only have limited understanding of the exquisite ways in which everything on Earth is interconnected [ . . . ] We can’t anticipate long-term consequences of any major technology if we are ignorant of how the world works and too impatient to invest the time and effort to learn more through scientific research.”

Lyle Lockhart, a retired research scientist at the DFO, spoke out against the “muzzling” of government scientists. He compared the plight of climate scientists in Canada to Galileo’s persecution for supporting “the ridiculous notion that the Earth moves around the sun.”

But it’s not just the silencing of scientists that we have to worry about, according to John Arthur, president of the Manitoba Association of Government Engineers.

“Unfortunately, our current government is attacking the foundations of Canadian science with cuts to programs and departments,” he said. An example lies in the cuts to the Discovery Grant Program of NSERC, which funds research in the natural sciences and engineering in Canada. University of Winnipeg professor Andrew Park said, “many of the products we have today came from basic science [ . . . ] basic science makes good policy happen.”

The Cereal Research Centre (CRC), stationed at the University of Manitoba, has also been cut. The CRC has conducted research on cereal grain quality, genetics, and resistance to diseases and insects. It is now expected to close in 2014. The CRC’s research is responsible for Canadian wheat’s reputation for “high levels of resistance to diseases [ . . . ] and serious insect pests,” according to Robert Lamb, an emeritus research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

This research contributed to the “reduced cost for buyers and consumers, and reduced pesticide cost for agriculturalists [ . . . ] this collaboration [between cereal breeders and CRC scientists] was largely responsible for making Canada a leading producer of quality wheat that goes all over the world.”

Shelley Sweeney, head of the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, spoke out against cuts to Libraries and Archives Canada. “It’s archival records that ensure the protection of individual and societal human rights [ . . . ] Once these records have been destroyed due to neglect, or lack of financial support, the history that they carry is lost for good.”

Marianne Hladun, regional executive vice-president of the Prairie Region for Public Service Alliance of Canada, spoke on behalf of the 19,000 public service workers who are out of work, and of the remaining employees who must conduct food inspections with limited resources.

“Frankly it’s offensive to me that the government says that the last food inspection crisis was caused by the workers not doing their job. They don’t have the resources to do their job. They go home at night hoping that somebody didn’t die because they missed something – that’s the life of an inspector today,” said Hladun.

Pamela Godin, a master’s student at the U of M in Arctic research, gave a student’s perspective on the issue.

“How do we get our science across?” she said.

In an interview with the Manitoban, Godin also questioned opportunities for newer graduate students. “Are they going to have less opportunity? Less money available with NSERC being cut?”

In his closing remarks, Andrew Park called for more evidence-based policy decisions, reopened channels of communication between scientists and the public, and a balance in funding between applied and basic sciences.

“It’s your Canada, it’s your science, and it’s your future, so act now to make it the future we want it to be.”