SENSibility: Fighting the War on Science

Vancouver, July 8, 2012. The country is about to be treated to a a rare and sad spectacle: a protest by scientists. Merchants, board up your storefronts. This week (Tuesday, to be precise) scientists will conduct a mock funeral procession to Parliament Hill, to mourn what they call the “death of evidence” in government decision making. The march will coincide with an evolutionary biology conference in Ottawa, presumably to ensure a good turnout.

This is the latest in a national expression of frustration with federal government mistreatment of the physical, life, and social sciences. Scientists, normally a rather restrained crowd, are speaking of a “war on science” that is increasing in intensity. The comparison to war is a harsh one, but as a rhetorical flourish “war on science” is not an inappropriate moniker. The federal government has advanced against science on four fronts: cuts to research funding, closure of government science laboratories and institutes, the elimination of science representation in decision making processes, and the muzzling of government scientists. Scientists make the completely reasonable argument that this four-pronged offensive will ultimately rob government of the evidence needed to make sound policy decisions. And so scientists will protest and march.

Someone (presumably a scientist) needs to tell them this tactic will achieve neither victory nor even stalemate in the war on science. First, non-mass protests tend to be curiosities, and are treated as such by the bulk of society. As a result, such protests (especially mock funeral marches conducted by evolutionary biologists) are unlikely to inspire a popular mobilization against the government. Second, the government is itself impervious to the protest weapon because it has its own motives in the fight. There is a precedent for this from south of the border. The administration of George W. Bush waged a similar war on science for eight years, and it was the only war the Bush Administration could legitimately claim to have won. Protests by scientists did little to slow the onslaught, because removing physical, life, or social science evidence as the standard for sound policy making was precisely what the Bush Administration was seeking to do.

New tactics are required. Scientists need to fight the war on science not by waging open order battles on Parliament Hill, but through an insurgency campaign. Scientists do have a very powerful political weapon in their possession: they know stuff. And that stuff, or evidence if you must, has a direct bearing on all the issues Canadians care about. It should now be the personal practice of every scientist in Canada who is frustrated by this government’s actions to be heard in all the forums available to them: newspapers, television, blogging, You Tube, social media. And they should say what they know, they should say what policies ought to be implemented, and they should say why government policies are wrong. Scientists must do more of what they should have been doing for a long time: directly engaging the public as champions of  science and evidence as the standard for sound policy practice.

Victory overnight? Of course not. No insurgency is won overnight. But over time, the more voices there are saying that government policy has no clothes, and the more the refrain is repeated and acknowledged, the more incompetent the government will appear. And incompetent governments change course or get replaced. That is how wars on science can be won by scientists.

Allen Sens is a Political Science professor at UBC.

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