Like any wake, there were some lighter moments but also an underlying seriousness as roughly 1,500 scientists, students and supporters rallied at noontime today on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to hold a mock funeral to mourn the “death of evidence.” According to the protest organizers’ website, “Until recently, evidence served a prominent role guiding the decisions of Canadian leaders. Its voice was tragically silenced recently after a series of severe injuries.”
The rallying cry for the event: “No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy.”
Directing the “service” was Katie Gibbs, a PhD student in the department of biology at the University of Ottawa, and Scott Findlay, associate professor and former director the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Environment.
“Scientists are generally not agitators, but this continuous set of decisions has got very many scientists hot under the collar,” said Dr. Findlay in a CBC report this morning.
“It definitely seems to us … that there is a systematic attack on science and the preferential cutting of programs that may produce results not in line with the Conservative agenda,” added Ms. Gibbs. “We feel that most Canadians regardless of their values or beliefs think that policies should be made based on evidence and based on facts.”
Scientists came to the rally from across Canada. Some were already in town for a conference on evolutionary biology. Among them was Simon Fraser University biologist Felix Breden. “It takes a lot to mobilize scientists who normally concentrate on basic science questions,” said Dr. Breden. “But the Harper government’s blatant disregard for science-based evidence and public consultation in the formation of its polices has motivated this march.”
“I’m completely overwhelmed by the number of scientists who came out today,” said organizer Ms. Gibbs at the rally. “We’re at a critical point in Canadian history. If we don’t stand up for science, nobody will.”
According to a backgrounder document prepared by organizers, “there is ample evidence that the present government has mounted a systematic campaign to reduce the flow of scientific evidence to Canadians” through the deliberate erosion of the capacity of federal institutions to collect evidence; the deliberate erosion of the legislative foundation of evidence-informed regulatory decision-making; and the reduction in the ability of federal scientists and civil society to bring evidence forward into the public debate.
Among the more specific indictments:
- The muzzling of Canadian government scientists, which got a public airing at a session of the AAAS meeting in Vancouver in February, and prompted an editorial in Nature magazine.
- The widely reported shuttering of the Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned research facility in northwestern Ontario.
- Ending the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, an independent advisory panel that provided independent advice on environmental sustainability and economic development.
- The withdrawal of federal funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science, which has led to, among other things, the closure of the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory.
- The 2008 decision not to renew the national science adviser.
- Eliminating the long-form census in 2010 and replacing it with a “voluntary” version, leading to the residnation of Statistics Canada’s Chief Statistician, Munir Sheikh.
The rally received significant media coverage prior to and during the event. A report in the Guardian newspaper in the U.K. called it “a widening revolt by the country’s leading scientists against sweeping cuts to government research labs and broadly pro-industry policies.”