“Canadian scientists aren’t normally among the placard-waving crowd on Parliament Hill” wrote Janet Davison for the CBC, describing plans for the funeral-themed protest by scientists the next day. Her statement says a lot about the significance of the protest. Something has changed in the way that many Canadian scientists perceive their relationship with the federal government, and it has changed so much that they were willing to take the largely unprecedented move to protest.
Did I first hear about the protest from the CBC though? No, the first news I read about it was from the The Guardian in the UK, where it was reported a full four and half hours earlier. Similarly during the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference hosted in Vancouver in February 2012 there were panels and gatherings addressing the alleged muzzling of Canadian scientists. Where did I hear about them? From the BBC.
It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that both stories were broken by UK media, where a public conversation about science is a visible part of public discourse. A similar scientific protest (even including a funeral theme) called Science is Vital received wide coverage and thorough analysis, both of its successes and failures. It has grown into an ongoing campaign. Studies from British sociologists of science even make the news. I don’t mean to idealize public scientific discourse in the UK – just point out that there is one.
The same cannot be said here.
Asking questions about the role and place of science in Canada seems almost completely outside of our field of view. Events like this need analysis, discussion and careful consideration. But who ran a commentary piece the day after the protests? The Guardian again with Alice Bell’s thoughtful essay on the larger global implications of Canadian scientific issues.
The discussion of the protest has been sparse and significantly short on analysis in Canadian national media. The Globe and Mail ran a Canadian Press piece on it as a news item but has published no commentary or analysis. The protest hasn’t appeared at all in The National Post. Only Macleans has hosted commentary, written by Julia Belluz on her blog Science-ish. CBC has also engaged also in some critical conversations, hosting a live blog and, on Ottawa radio, pressing for a government response. The story doesn’t seem to have made it, however, to any national current affairs programming such as The Current.
This is a serious problem. When science or scientists feature at all in our national conversation, the only message seems to be “see aren’t Canadian scientists great” (and they are), but moments like this protest are a rich and important opportunity to ask about the place of science in Canadian culture. What should the relationship be between university scientists, industrial scientists and government scientists? How should they all be interacting with policy makers and parliament? Do we value government supported research centres like the Experimental Lakes Area?
It feels sometimes like almost no one is asking these questions, but that’s not true. There are excellent and thoughtful science journalists and writers in Canada, but science in national newsrooms has been gutted and concerns raised by organizations like the Canadian Science Writers Association* are only starting to gain a little traction.
Where is the place for these conversations our national media?
Update July 18, 9:11 MT: A week later there has still been little analytic coverage or discussion of the implications of the protest. It has, however, received a mention as part of other articles related to federal funding of scientific research.
Globe and Mail: “Ottawa’s wind-farm study a case of suspiciously political science” The Globe’s editorial for Monday, July 16th highlights new federal funding to study the health effects of wind turbines despite little evidence to support claims of dangers. The editors use it as another example of funding decisions not made scientifically, the same concern they saw raised in the Death of Evidence protest.
Vancouver Sun: “Arctic coal-mining plan draws criticism” In an article published on the same day as the protest, Randy Boswell examines a new arctic coal mining plan, following on the heals of one that was rejected by the Nunavut Impact Review Board in 2010. Boswell notes that the controversy has emerged at the same time that scientists across the country are raising alarms about cuts to environmental research centres. (Thanks GeneGeek for the tip on this one.)
The CBC carried a national interview on CBC News Network with one of the protest organizers, Dr. Scott Findlay of the University of Ottawa. (I’m not of fan, though, of the “Gosh, I just don’t understand” style of science interviewing that Suhana Meharchand uses here. I understand the intent but it gives an impression of lack of preparation.)
Radio One’s Information Morning in Fredericton picked up that interview and used it to begin a more detailed look into how local research centres have been affected by federal cuts.
With the Maritimes leading the way, Radio One’s New Brunswick drive-home program, Shift, conducted an in-depth interview with Findlay as well.
And so did Whitehorse’s Radio One drive-home, Airplay.
No word yet from The National Post but Postmedia did provide a story that was run on it’s Canada.com site as well as by papers such as the Vancouver Sun and The Ottawa Citizen. Strangely, The Citizen seems to have run two version of the same story on their site, one that is credited as a Postmedia story and one (a slightly shorter version with a new headline) that is written by the same person (Ottawa-based Teresa Smith) but credited as a staff writer.
I’m proud to say my local Postmedia outlet, The Edmonton Journal, ran their own story on the protest, written by staff writer Graham Thomson: Political science on the Hill.
* Disclosure: I am a member of the CSWA but have not been directly involved in these efforts.