A clash of ideas is not a war on science

(This first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on October 10, 2013)

dna-pictures4The Professional Institute of the Public Service will soon release the results of a poll of scientists employed by the Government of Canada. The poll results will fuel an already-heated debate about what some feel is a “war on science” waged by the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

However, the problem is not so much a war, as it is more a mix of politics and competing visions of the public good.

First, if there is a war on science, it has been going on for some time. There is an ongoing debate about the role and place of science in the making of public policy. Moreover, since the 1990s, successive governments, Liberal and Conservative, have limited funding for government labs while increasing funding for university-based research and development. Similarly, the pressure to increase the commercialization role of federal labs did not begin with the current Conservative government but began in the late 1990s, if not earlier. This may weaken the ability of the federal government to regulate and make policy but it is not new.

Second, while we might agree that the scientific research funded by or done directly by government should serve the broader public interest, we do not agree on how to define it. Traditionally, much of government science was linked to the policy and regulatory process in areas like health and the environment. Yet a major part of this science has always been linked to promoting economic growth by using government labs to develop new technologies linked to such things as nuclear energy, agriculture or biotechnology.

The Harper government, like the Liberal governments before it, believes that economic growth is in the public interest and government science should be directed to support that goal along with more traditional public interest objectives like limiting pollution and products that put human health at risk.

Third, a big part of the current debate turns on how best to balance the right of a government to control what is said in its name and the right of scientists to freely talk about their research.

Many of the current rules governing what federal government scientists can say, to whom they can say it and when are ridiculously restrictive.

Scientists working for the Government of Canada should be able to speak freely about their research. We are not well served by a government that is excessively preoccupied with controlling the message in order to secure short-term partisan advantage.

However, government scientists are public servants and, unlike university researchers, they have a responsibility to avoid overt criticism of the government of the day. This is challenging when the media goes looking for a gap between government science and government policy and, having found it, tries to convince us this is a problem.

Finally, we need to ask if scientific evidence alone should determine public policy. Science does not and indeed cannot be the only basis for public policy. The opposite of evidence-based policy is not, as some of the critics seem to assume, ideologically driven chaos. Our elected representatives are tasked with making judicious choices that balance scientific evidence, public opinion, job creation, economic growth, environmental protection, trade and foreign-policy objectives, and much else besides.

In essence, much of the current debate about science and government is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of democratic politics. Nothing is gained by saying “science” is good and “politics” is bad. This is a caricature of both science and politics and the relationship between the two.



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