A Scientific Disjoint

I’ve been fortunate to work in a double bubble. As a university scientist, I’ve been immersed in a culture that promotes open discussion of issues and results, and as Director of SFU’s Centre for Dialogue I work in an environment whose sole reason for existence is the free exchange of ideas.

Scientists in other habitats don’t have that same luxury to be approachable and accessible. Take Canada’s federal scientists, for example: their attendance at conferences is highly restricted, even mildly controversial opinions are muzzled, and those few researchers allowed a rare media interview are accompanied by a handler who shuts down queries that make the current political party in power uncomfortable.

Research libraries are being unceremoniously dumped of their contents, and field stations shuttered if they conduct research that might yield results out of synch with government policies.

And then there are industry scientists, who rarely publish information contrary to their company’s best interests. Even outsourced industry research in collaboration with university scientists often is tightly controlled by contract, with publication allowed only with industry permission. With diminishing government support for science, these arrangements with industry have become increasingly pervasive, further driving the scientific community into the most anti-science of attitudes: silence.

The increasing control of science by political agendas and industry funding is particularly tragic given the myriad issues that would benefit from a more public discussion of results and ideas. Climate change, pharmaceutical side effects, health of fishery stocks, pesticide impacts and the environmental consequences of oil spills are only a small sample of the many issues that citizens need to hear about from scientists representing a wide spectrum of perspectives in order to make informed decisions.

Part of the answer to this conundrum is for scientists themselves to advocate for more open exchange of results from government and industry research, and for limitations on the silencing impact of corporate funding. In recent months we’ve seen scientists rally in protests across the country, write commentary opinion for newspapers and even practice civil disobedience to bring the currently dismal state of scientific discourse to public attention.

But more is needed, particularly from opposition political parties, to promote policies that open scientific inquiry to public attention. A few pro-science ideas in an election platform would be intriguing, policies that would improve the capacity of scientists to contribute to important civic issues:

  • Allow media unfettered access to government scientists, and allow their now-suppressed opinions to emerge without censure or consequences
  • Cease relying on research from industry about the health and environmental consequences of their products, replacing this currently self-serving system with independent research funded at arms length by industry, without corporate control
  • Link all research grants with a requirement to communicate results clearly to the public, and provide students at undergraduate and graduate levels with the skills to communicate effectively with public audiences
  • Ask media to do a one-for one: every time they are denied access to a government scientist, they will list the incidents on the front page of their paper or within a television broadcast, pointing out what we, the public, won’t know because of muzzling
  • Revive a federal science office, dedicated to enforce the open communication of science

Naïve? Absolutely. But I’ll campaign for any political party that adopts one or more of these or similar pro-candidness election platforms.