Most Canadians understand that our well-being depends on science. But Canadian science is under assault. And scientists, like Peter Finch in the film Network, are mad as hell. In July, more than 2,000 of them staged a mock funeral for scientific evidence on Parliament Hill to protest the Harper government’s dismantling of Canadian institutions that collect scientific evidence, the muzzling of government scientists, and the erosion of the role of scientific evidence in public debate and regulatory decisions.
The rally was covered by news media across Canada and around the world. Nature, perhaps the world’s premier science journal, ran a lead editorial on the event, concluding: “If the Harper government has valid strategic reasons to undermine vital sectors of Canadian science, then it should say so . . .”
Predictably, the next day Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear issued a hasty press release pointing out that the last budget included a $1.1 billion investment in science. Even the lay public saw through this embarrassingly transparent attempt to dodge the issue, which was about the gathering, unfiltered dissemination and use of scientific evidence, not about the funding of science writ large.
Even so, close examination of the $1.1 billion investment shows that much has been allocated to industry and commercial science partnerships. Meanwhile, the proportion of funding allocated to basic research, such as the budget of the Discovery Grants program of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, has been dropping steadily since 2006.
The science enterprise is like a pyramid. At the base are scientists engaged in the importunate probing of nature’s corpus — say, characterizing the molecular signalling pathways whose activation predisposes cells to become cancerous. Balancing on their shoulders are scientists who apply this knowledge to existing problems — say, developing a cancer drug that will block some of these signalling pathways. And teetering at the apex are scientists engaged in the industrialization of applied research — say, finding efficient ways of producing cancer drugs in large quantities at a reasonable price.
As children, we learned that the larger the base, the taller the pyramid that can be supported: the more basic research, the more opportunities for commercialization and industrialization. Moreover, an uneven base — areas of science where there is comparatively little basic research — not only means no corresponding opportunities for application or industrialization but, worse still, increases the chances of the whole structure toppling over. So too does overloading the top levels: after all, even the most robust basic scientist can support only so many of her applied and industrialization colleagues on her shoulders.
There are at least four reasons why all Canadians should repudiate Prime Minister Harper’s systematic erosion of science capacity in some areas, and more generally, his repudiation of scientific evidence.
First, true democracy is possible only with a well-informed and skeptical populace. And it is scientific evidence that informs, and the spirit of scientific inquiry that motivates, this essential constructive skepticism.
Second, the repudiation of scientific evidence is a de facto rejection of one of humanity’s greatest intellectual pursuits. It is a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands of science students in high schools, colleges and universities — and the spirit of intellectual curiosity and imagination that motivates them. In short, it undermines the intellectual capacity on which the future progress of Canadian society depends.
Third, there are areas of basic and applied research which are enormously important for the welfare of Canadians yet for which there is little potential for industrialization or commercialization — for example, the science that informs how best to protect both ourselves and our environment from the unsalutary consequences of the industrialization and commercialization of scientific knowledge.
Fourth, our tax dollars go to support programs and policies that are designed, we are told, to achieve certain goals. The more scientific evidence that is considered in taking decisions, the more likely we are to achieve desired goals and avoid undesired consequences.
Evidence-free decisions are merely uneducated guesswork. Scientific evidence is a form of insurance, a comparatively inexpensive yet effective way to ensure that much larger investments in government programs are not wasted, that opportunities are not squandered, and that others will not have to shoulder the burden of (whoops!) undesired and unanticipated consequences. In other words, scientific evidence forms the basis for true public accountability. And isn’t accountability the horse on which Harper rode into Parliament?