from the policy-based-evidence dept
One of the most fundamentally insane things about government and politics is the fact that evidence-based policy is frequently not the norm. It should be common sense that you don't create new laws and regulations without actual evidence that they will work, or even clear evidence on the scope of the problem they aim to solve. But as we know, things don't really work that way—it's a lot easier for politicians and legislators to make their push based on emotion and public perception.
As with any governmental problem, real change has to start with the citizens. We need to demand evidence, and try not to let ourselves or our peers rely on rhetoric when we discuss and debate important issues and participate in the political process. But governments are not blameless: too often, politicians treat evidence as an obstacle to their political goals, when it should be the motivator of them. Here in Canada, this issue has been slowly gaining attention over the past year with growing complaints that the current government requires scientists it employs to vet their results through a media office before releasing them, to ensure that they are politically on-message. The Globe & Mail recently published a firmly-worded editorial calling on the government to end this practice, and citing the many people who want the same:
Ottawa should respond to the growing controversy – outlined in the prestigious journal Nature – by freeing its scientists. The magazine is calling on the government to show that it will live up to its promise to embrace public access to publicly funded scientific expertise. The issue is serious enough that it was the subject of a panel at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held last month in Vancouver.
The Canadian Science Writers Association and the World Federation of Science Journalists have also sent an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, citing examples of researchers being prevented from sharing details about their published work on climate change, natural resources, health, and fisheries and oceans. In the case of studies involving collaborators from other countries, Canada often gets “scooped” by foreign media who are not subject to the same level of bureaucratic interference. That hardly qualifies as celebrating success in science.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has drawn criticism before for exerting tight control over the media and all communications coming from his government, but this situation goes a step further. To censor scientists in this way neuters them and turns them into glorified copywriters, because the objective reporting of all evidence is the crux of the scientific pursuit. If this is how the government treats its scientists, then the government is not employing scientists at all.
This is a betrayal of Canadian citizens. A portion of our tax dollars goes to funding public scientific research, because it is supposed to benefit us by informing smart, effective policy, and that money is being squandered. We must call on the government to put scientists in their proper role: as shapers of the political agenda, not slaves to it. Until that happens, Canada bears the shame of being a country without public science.