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When scientists become activists

It can be tricky to balance a research career with public advocacy, but that doesn’t stop some from speaking out.

By DIANE PETERS | NOV 13 2013

Last summer, the Ottawa-based advocacy group Evidence for Democracy asked scientists from across the country to organize local demonstrations to voice their concerns for the state of science in Canada. “We thought we’d get four or five events going, but more and more people started emailing us back,” says Katie Gibbs, executive director of the year-old group, which advocates for the use of scientific evidence in government decision-making. In the end, 18 cities hosted protests dubbed “Stand up for Science” on September 16.

The higher-than-expected turnout marks a trend. A year before, when a group of Ottawa professors decided to protest against funding cuts for scientific research, they expected a few hundred to mourn the “Death of Evidence” on Parliament Hill. In the end, more than 2,000 showed up. (That protest, which Dr. Gibbs helped put together, triggered the launch of her advocacy group.)

According to Dr. Gibbs, federal funding of research has been cut by about 12 percent over the last four years. A high-profile casualty of those cuts was the Experimental Lakes Area research station in northwestern Ontario that, since 1968, has been used to conduct whole-ecosystem freshwater research. In 2012, the federal government announced it would no longer fund the program, putting the research station’s continued operations in jeopardy.

Scientists in academia are also increasingly concerned about reports of the muzzling of government researchers. A recent survey of federal government scientists conducted by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada found that 90 percent of respondents feel they can’t speak freely to the media and 24 percent say they have been asked to exclude or alter information when speaking to a journalist.

“There was a tipping point where we realized that if we didn’t speak out for science, nobody else was going to,” says Dr. Gibbs, who recently completed a PhD in biology from the University of Ottawa.

But it can be a tricky business when scientists get in front of a microphone or pen an opinion piece and become activists. “There is the idea that our job is to do science and these are issues that we are not well equipped to deal with,” says Scott Findlay, a board member of Evidence for Democracy and an associate professor of biology at U of Ottawa. “There’s also the view that once you get involved, you risk losing your scientific objectivity.”

This issue could be particularly fraught for young scientists, as this sort of activism might be seen as career-limiting. Diane Orihel knows all about that. In 2012, working towards her PhD in ecology at the University of Alberta, she was conducting research out of the ELA the day staff was told the federal government was cancelling the program. With the support of her supervisor, she crafted a press release to draw attention to the issue, since her on-staff colleagues could not speak to the media. Running the Coalition to Save ELA, doing press interviews, talking to government officials and attending protests eventually took up so much of her time that she had to put her PhD on hold (she finished it this past summer).

While her work gave ELA some hope – it now has funding from the government of Ontario but most of the staff have left and legal issues have prevented any real research from restarting there – it has likely altered her career path. “I always pictured myself working for Environment Canada or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans,” she says, but she now feels her public advocacy efforts likely preclude that possibility.

The experience, though, has still been valuable. “I’ve given hundreds of interviews. I’m on a first-name basis with members of parliament, heads of NGOs and heads of universities. To have that kind of exposure as a student can only be a benefit to my career,” she says. She is currently waiting for funding for a postdoctoral research project.

Some scientists have been able to balance activism with research careers quite successfully. Retiring U of A ecology professor David Schindler (who has taught Dr. Orihel) has been both researching freshwater ecology and speaking out about the environment since the 1960s. He met with ongoing resistance from government for his findings, often carried out at the ELA, about the impacts of acid rain and phosphates on fresh water. But he kept producing solid data anyway – and winning numerous awards in the process. “I’ve always believed that a scientist can be an advocate,” he says in a recent video created by U of A to celebrate his long career.

As for Dr. Gibbs and Evidence for Democracy, her goal is to ensure that well-funded, transparent science has a future in this country, and that the best available scientific evidence is used to formulate public policy. This, however, doesn’t mean taking sides on certain scientific issues, she says. “We’re advocating for the process.”

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  1. Lokis / November 13, 2013 at 13:34

    You want a litmus test for tolerance on a topic of discourse? – Try raising questions on 911 – puts you into a spectral position somewhere between pedophilia and a holocaust denier. Give the film on the academic community and the 911 tragedy by a young chap- Adnan Zuberi a shot. Documentary focuses on the timidity and cowardice of university researchers – Copernicus would be shaking his head in disgust.

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