As another year comes to a halt, it is always wise to reflect on the year that has been in order to make informed decisions regarding the year ahead. Unfortunately for science, 2012 has been a bleak year. From the muzzling and jailing of scientists to the closure of world-renowned institutions, it appears that science has been the target of many governments worldwide. With worry, discomfort, and anger resonating throughout the global scientific community, particularly in Canada, scientists have never witnessed a year quite like 2012. To give you a sense of the disregard and negligence that science has been facing as of late, here are my top 5 ‘attacks on science’ of 2012, in descending order:
5. ‘Muzzling’ of Canadian scientists:
Under the Harper Conservatives, Canadian scientists have been experiencing a loss of words, literally. At a recent polar conference in Montreal, Québec this past April, Canadian scientists were shadowed closely by government liaison officers and prohibited from speaking to any media and/or reveling information that they were not authorized to discuss. These instances were not only evident at the polar conference, but have been a trademark of the current Canadian government. Government scientists across the country have been unable to speak to media regarding crucial research, resulting in a substantial lack of knowledge amongst the general public. For instance, Dr. Kristi Miller, a fisheries scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, has been suppressed from explaining her research to the general public regarding declining stocks of sockeye salmon on Canada’s Pacific coast, potentially resulting from the arrival of the ISA (infected salmon anemia) virus in the area. Furthermore, the lab of Dr. Fred Kibenge, one of the world’s leading authorities in ISA at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island, has been suspended from further research until an investigation into his data concerning the arrival of the same virus (detrimental to salmon aquaculture) on the Pacific coast has been completed. Dr. Kibenge’s case has received much media attention lately and the Canadian government has been criticized for trying to sabotage Kibenge and his research for reporting ‘inconvenient’ findings. These instances are just a few pieces of evidence to support the Canadian government’s attack on science and evidence-based decision making.
4. Cuts to the Field Museum of Natural History
Last week, on December 20th, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois announced a 3 million dollar cut to its budget for science operations, resulting in devastating repercussions to its research. The proposed cuts will see unfavorable layoffs to researchers, curators, and collections staff along with the complete dissolution of key departments such as zoology, botany, anthropology and geology, which have been essential to scientific progress for more than 120 years. The cuts to science come at the expense of keeping public interest by attempting to raise 100 million dollars for the construction and implementation of a revenue-building restaurant. In an interview, Dr. James Hanken, the director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts expressed his disapproval saying,
“It’s one of the great institutions in comparative zoology, biodiversity, and natural history, and it has been one of the leading centers for research for more than 100 years… There’s no way the Field Museum will be able to maintain its position of prominence under those circumstances.”
3. Canada’s Bill C-45
Aside from dismissing historical treaties and neglecting the opinions and concerns of Canada’s First Nations people leading to the current ‘Idle No More‘ movement, the recent acceptance and passing of omnibus bill C-45 on December 15th strongly reiterated Canada’s stance on science and the environment. The passing of the omnibus bill saw the legal withdrawal of Canada from the Kyoto Protocol, which elucidated Canada as the only nation out of more than 180 to legally exit the protocol and was the first treaty in Canadian history that has ever been ratified and then repudiated and renounced. Additionally, the passing of the bill also enforced drastic and devastating cuts to Canada’s Environmental Protection Act. The number of protected lakes and rivers across the country was chopped from more than 2.5 million to a mere 159, a decrease of 99.9% in freshwater ecosystem protection. The dismantling of environmental protection to these aquatic bodies in Canada paves the way for conglomerates such as oil and natural gas industry to have free reign over practically any freshwater habitat in the country.
2. Italian scientists convicted of manslaughter
This past October saw the conviction and sentencing of 6 Italian scientists and 1 government official under the charge of manslaughter for allegedly making what the Italian government called ‘falsely reassuring statements’ prior to the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009, which killed 309 people and devastated the city of L’Aquila, Italy. The scientists and official were sentenced to 6 years in prison for providing ‘inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory’ information regarding the earthquake. However, the judge failed to take into account the fact that scientists cannot accurately predict such things and any statements from them require a degree of cautionary subjectivity. The sentencing led to the immediate resignations of numerous scientists within Italy’s disaster preparedness agency (the same agency in which the scientists and official worked for) and sent a shockwave through the global scientific community.
1. Closure of Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area (ELA)
In May, the Harper Conservatives announced the closure of one of the world’s most renowned, respected, and unique scientific research facilities – the Experimental Lakes Area. The ELA was established by the Fisheries Research Board of Canada and consists of a series of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario set aside for scientific purposes. The work conducted at ELA is like no other in that it uses an ecosystem-based approach to performing ecological experiments. That is, for example, rather than testing the small-scale effects of a particular chemical on water in a series of bottles, these effects can be tested on entire lakes to understand how whole ecosystems are affected. Some of the research conducted at Canada’s ELA has been critical to our understanding of anthropogenic impacts on freshwater ecosystems and has been the leading force behind global decision making. For example, a study conducted by David Schindler et al. (1973) clearly proved that phosphorus was the leading contributor behind algal blooms in lakes that were experiencing mass mortality of fish and other organisms. This study led to the elimination of phosphorus from dish detergents and enhanced the health of countless lakes worldwide. Moreover, the ELA has contributed to our current knowledge of major environmental concerns such as acid rain, chemical contamination in freshwater food webs, and the impacts of the Alberta Tar Sands on surrounding environments. The financial halt to ELA sparked worldwide media attention and cross-country protests from scientists, environmentalists and concerned Canadians, including mock funerals for the ‘death of evidence’ in Canada’s decision making policies, and (along with the previously mentioned attacks on science from the Canadian government) has led to international criticism of Canada’s prioritization of science and the environment.