Overview of First Eleven Town Halls: themes and issues

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In September 2013, Get Science Right hit the road, beginning a year of town halls across the country. With eleven stops, from St. John’s all the way to Vancouver, community members, university researchers, students, postdoctoral fellows, librarians, journalists, and government scientists convened to discuss the state of science and research policy in Canada. Panelists and speakers flagged problems, suggested improvements, and highlighted the local impact of federal science policies. Over the course of this year-long discussion, several themes emerged around which the most serious concerns coalesced.

 

First, funding for science and research is in crisis. Many panelists and attendees lamented the fact that while the Harper government is spending money, it is allocating it to research that either has direct commercial application or poses no serious threat to the government’s political agenda. Starting in Waterloo, Ontario – Canada’s “Top Intelligent Community” – we heard how the government is targeting research with direct commercial application, much to the benefit of industry but to the detriment of basic research funding. The funding that is available is often channeled to goliath university institutions to the detriment of smaller schools. With the focus on commercial application, the social sciences are also being starved for resources.

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At the same time, research that potentially challenges this government’s agenda is often underfunded. The starving of fields such as criminology and environmental management, the defunding of social justice programs, and the closure of important research sites like the Experimental Lakes Area demonstrate the lack of government support for research which is inherently critical, of industry or of government.

 

The second theme to emerge was the increasing separation of science from public policy. In Calgary, panelist David Hyttenrauch warned against this trend when he said, “If none of our social policies or economic policies are evidence-based, then we are all in trouble.” At every town hall, participants raised alarms over the government’s cancelling of important public policy tools like Statistics Canada’s Mandatory Long Form Census, and reinforced the importance of publicly-funded science to democracy.Panelists in the Atlantic Provinces were particularly concerned about the weakening of science-based legislation such as the Fisheries Act, the changes to which reverse progress we have made as a country on environmental protection and sustainable resource use. One panelist remarked, “Instead of science informing policy, this government wants policy to inform science.”

 

The third theme was the detrimental effect the Harper government’s science policy is having on Canada’s scientific capacity and reputation. Scientists across the country recounted how they have observed the reputation of Canada deteriorating abroad, particularly on the environmental front, where Canada is seen as a pariah. Panelists in Calgary, Edmonton, and Toronto described how Canada’s international scientific reputation is on the decline and the environment is becoming less attractive for foreign researchers. One major reason for this is the policy of muzzling government scientists, the rampant cutbacks to the research functions of government departments such as Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Statistics Canada, and Justice Canada, to name only a few. The degradation of the scientific environment in Canada will have long-term negative effects, according to Winnipeg panelist Judith Anderson, who decried the impact of cuts to the granting councils on young researchers. She continued, “What a colossal waste, we are losing a generation of scientists.”VancouverCrowdLarge (2)

 

Over the course of the first eleven Get Science Right town halls we were encouraged by engaged audiences and strong community support. Questions and comments were insightful and illuminating. Audiences were sincere in their desire to improve the scientific environment in Canada, to implement a return to evidence based policy making, and to create policy that is more supportive of research. The upcoming 2014-15 year, leading up to the next federal election, promises to connect even more people at more town halls. Get Science Right plans to visit Montreal, Kingston, and Prince George, among others. This national conversation needs to continue until our government finally hears us and gets science right.

 

 

Town Hall Moderator panelists (discipline) affiliation
Waterloo Craig Norris (CBC) Melanie Campbell (physics, optometry) University of Waterloo
David DeVidi (philosophy) University of Waterloo
Jeffrey Jones (psychology) Wilfrid Laurier
Peterborough Louise Brown (Toronto Star) Kathryn Norlock (philosophy) Trent University
Maggie Xenopoulos (biology) Trent University
Brad Easton (chemistry) Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT)
Toronto Dan Falk (journalist) Richard Peltier (physics) University of Toronto
Brenda Gallie (medicine) University of Toronto
Chandler Davis (mathematics) University of Toronto
St. John’s, NL Chris O’Neill-Yates (CBC) Barb Neis (sociology) Memorial University
Bill Montevecchi (psychobiology) Memorial University
Paul Snelgrove (biological oceanography) Memorial University
Halifax Jordi Morgan (radio host, journalist) Tom Duck (atmospheric science) Dalhousie University
James Drummond (atmospheric science) Dalhousie University
Ian Stewart (history of science and technology) King’s College
Cathy Conrad (geography) St. Mary’s University
Vancouver Bob McDonald (CBC) Jim Wright (clinical pharmacology) University of British Columbia
Siân Echard (medieval studies, English) University of British Columbia
Gwenn Flowers (earth sciences) Simon Fraser University
Jane Watson (marine ecology) Vancouver Island University
Quebec City Françoise Guénette (journalist) Diane Parent (agriculture and food science) University of Laval
Edith Deleury (law) University of Laval
Louis Bernatchez (biology) University of Laval
Winnipeg (French) Raymond Hébert (political scientist) Fernand Saurette (biology) Université de Saint-Boniface
Luc Coté (history) Université de Saint-Boniface
Hélène Perrault (chemistry) University of Manitoba
Pascal Badiou (ecology) Ducks Unlimited
Winnipeg (English) Lauren McNabb (Global News) John Loxley (economics) University of Manitoba
Peter Blunden (physics) University of Manitoba
Judith Anderson (biology) University of Manitoba
Jim Clark (psychology) University of Winnipeg
Edmonton Graham Thomson (Edmonton Journal) Hanne Ostergaard (medical microbiology, immunology) University of Alberta
Nils Petersen (chemistry) University of Alberta
Stephen Slemon (English) University of Alberta
David Schindler (ecology) University of Alberta
Calgary Andrew Nikiforuk (journalist, author) Penny Pexman (psychology) University of Calgary
Hamid Habibi (biology) University of Calgary
David Hyttenrauch (English) Mount Royal University
Deborah Dewey (paediatrics, community health) University of Calgary