Government vs. the Public: Mind the Science Gap

Arid and barren - kind of like the science climate in Canada.
Arid and – on the surface – barren. Sort of like the science climate in Canada? (Photo: S. Boon)

Last fall I wrote a post about Canadian science communication, which got a lot of hits – for me, anyway. Some liked it, others hated it, and I suspect there was a contingent that just enjoyed laughing at all the things an obscure scientist from southern Alberta *didn’t* know about science and scicomm in Canada.
Having had some time to get better acquainted with Canadian scicomm, it’s obvious that there are more things going on than I could ever hope to know about. As a scientist and a science communicator, however, I see a growing gap between government and public ideas about science.
I’m not the first to say that our government (CPC; Conservative Party of Canada) appears to be waging a war on science, applying a multi-pronged approach apparently designed to bring Canadian science to its knees.
1. Changes to legislation
As I (and many others, particularly journalists Margaret Munro & Mike de Souza) have written about, the government has implemented major changes to the Fisheries and Navigable Waters Acts – among others. These changes make scientific information secondary to policy development, and are thus likely to result in some science no longer being considered ‘important’.
2. Government budget cuts
The CPC has applied deep budget cuts in the name of ‘austerity’ and ‘balanced budgets’. As I’ve noted previously, it means deep cuts to the same departments that are dealing with changes in legislation (i.e., DFO, Environment Canada). This has resulted in complete annihilation, in some cases, of entire government science units. We’ve seen the closure of the marine contaminants unit, the air pollution group, the Experimental Lakes Area, and others. Partially because, as I noted above, this science is no longer a priority.
The scientists remaining are required to essentially do the same with less – and are struggling. The excellent anonymous blog ‘Unmuzzled Science’ gives a good overview not only of what’s happening budget-wise within government departments, but why government science is so important in the first place.
3. Changes to internal government policies
This has been in the news a lot recently. While I’m glad it’s being aired, I’m shocked we have to deal with it in the first place.
The CPC has previously been accused of muzzling government scientists by preventing them from talking to the media. However, they hit a new low this January with policies that will also affect those who work with government scientists.
The new rules in place at DFO (Central & Arctic region) require that any manuscripts with a government scientist co-author must be submitted for internal review prior to submission to a journal for peer review. This amounts to bureaucrats reviewing science with which they are unfamiliar and have never been involved with – possibly to ‘manage the message’.
For some specific projects with international collaborators, new rules restrict public dissemination of research methodologies and findings – for example via blogging. Collaborating scientists are understandably irate about this.
These policies will drastically reduce collaborations between government and academic scientists, pushing science further into the closet, so to speak. This is exactly the opposite direction the US government is taking, with new open data standards announced on Friday.
4. Science funding to university researchers
CPC actions suggest a belief that any science funded by the government should directly benefit the Canadian economy and industry in some tangible way. The merits of ‘basic research’ are lost on them, as they think in terms of patents and technology rather than ideas and knowledge.
For example, by cutting NSERC’s Major Resources Support program, the CPC effectively shut down several innovative – and important – research programs. The majority of funding now available through NSERC is largely industry-focused (see the Strategic Partnerships Program). For example, studies of water conservation in the oilsands, or fiber use in forestry. Not that these topics are bad in and of themselves. But by focusing solely on industry-relevant science, the government constrains the Canadian scientific endeavour to existing issues, making it difficult to broaden our perspective and make new discoveries.
5. Focus on the few rather than the many
Since its inception, the federal body tasked with funding academic research (Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council; NSERC) has been funding a high number of researchers, though each received a relatively small grant. Our productivity in terms of publications per grant dollar was high relative to countries such as the US and UK. Not long after the CPC came into office, an NSERC review was instituted, which resulted in fewer grants of higher value, and the emergence of additional grants designed to award more funding to high performing scientists.
The CPC also initiated the CERC program, which (as I and others have discussed previously) aims to attract high profile, non-Canadian researchers to our country to ‘stimulate’ the research environment. Though there are many issues of concern with this process, and an Industry Canada report was commissioned on these issues – including the lack of female representation – stage two of the program is now well underway.
These funding initiatives are designed to support the few rather than the many. However, the Canadian science community is relatively small. Unlike the AGU, where you can go days without bumping into someone you know is there, the annual meeting of the CGU is like a family get together. Singling out a few for special treatment minimizes the contributions of the whole, and divides a research community that can’t afford to be divided in the first place. Even in countries with a relatively high scientist population, this favouring of few over many is not looked upon kindly.
For example, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the CERC program are constantly talking up Canada’s ‘leading water expert’, Howard Wheater. Wheater is a British CERC hired by the University of Saskatchewan, where he has created the Global Institute for Water Security.  Before he came, however, UofS had ‘leading water expertise’ in their Centre for Hydrology, in the form of Garth van der Kamp, John Pomeroy, Chris Spence, Cherie Westbrook, Kevin Shook, and others. Not to mention the water expertise in action at the Universities of Waterloo, Alberta, BC…well you get the picture. The promotion of the few above the many diminishes the community’s contributions, and suggests Canada had no expertise to begin with. It does little to build science – or science credibility – in Canada.
It’s been said that the public reviles science and begrudges scientists their jobs, their lack of so-called ‘real world’ smarts, and their impenetrable jargon-filled language. But while it’s easy to find evidence of that, it’s also easy to find evidence of the public’s fascination with and interest in science, and their willingness to engage with science that’s effectively communicated.
Canadians – and people around the world – are mesmerized by Chris Hadfield’s science communications from space. Take a look at Cath Ennis’ article about her time as the moderator of the ‘People of Canada’ Twitter account. She used it as an opportunity to bring science to Canadians – and got an amazing response! Examples of public science initiatives abound in Canada, from the country wide Science Rendezvous, to Science Online Vancouver, Calgary’s new Beakerhead initiative, Saskatoon’s Geek Girl dinner, and Science Atlantic. In Toronto, Hassaan Basit hosted a sold out Science Online Watch Party. These are just a few examples of the ways in which Canadians are soaking up science. Countless Canadians are working as science illustrators, writers, journalists, TV/radio hosts to bring science to the public.
It’s not that we don’t have an interested and involved public and the science communicators to engage them. It’s more that we don’t have the infrastructure to link communicators together like the Americans do with the Science Online meeting in Raleigh or the AAAS Meeting in Boston, or blog networks like PLoS Blogs or the Discover and SciAm networks.
To that end, groups like Genome Alberta, the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA), the Science Media Centre of Canada (SMCC), and Canadian Science Publishing (CSP) are working with individuals such as myself, @frogheart, @8CrayonScience, @raymondsbrain and others to build a Canadian science communication and (ultimately) blog network. If you’re interested in joining, you can register at
The problem appears to be that, while science communication abounds, science itself is becoming more difficult to do in our country because the government has little respect for science and its role in society. As a prime example, Maryse de la Giroday (@frogheart) just posted about the long-awaited Canadian Council of Academies expert panel on science culture in Canada. Unfortunately, it appears entrenched in an outdated mindset that not only overlooks science blogging and social media (key indicators of science culture!), but also doesn’t consider the role of industry and the arts (and what is the latter if not ‘culture’?).
I think it’s up to us – scientists and scicomms alike – to push for the science & science culture we think is important to our society and our future.
To some extent this is already happening. The Governor General recently wrote an op-ed for the Globe & Mail, exhorting Canada’s scientists to win more international awards to show how good our science is. Many commenters jeered at this idea, well aware of the sorry state of Canadians science funding, and the fact that rewarding individuals negates the notion that their ideas were built on the foundation of an entire science community.
As scientists, we can work with (rather than compete against) our colleagues to build research capacity and push innovation in key fields. As scicomms, we can commit to digging deeper to find more ‘leading experts’ than who we’re steered to accept as such, and broaden the science conversation to include research results that may not be glamorous, but are certainly interesting. It’s not just the science superstars who have something to say – and it’s a hungry public who want to hear it.
Note – Colin Schultz just had a great post on #cancomm & #scio13 that’s also a must read.

8 thoughts on “Government vs. the Public: Mind the Science Gap”

  1. Good stuff! By the way, would anyone know why the “C” in the CPC logo is twisted like a Moebius strip? If they knew about Moebius strips, what message are they hoping to send? If they don’t know they are sending a message.

  2. Others have argued against the CERC model (and compared it to the successful CRC model):
    CERC chairs also negotiate outlandish conditions, like an annual 3-month sabbatical, or being able to spend 2/3 of the year away and outside the country. As Margaret Munro pointed out last fall, one CERC chair (like the failed diabetes CERC at Univ of Alberta) would have funded PEARL for 5 years.

  3. Any chance the CPC are more interested in science than in political advocacy by “scientists”? A few NSERC chairs would my targets for starters.


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