Category Archives: Politics and Policy

Science in the Time of Trump

First and foremost, I want to state baldly that the election of Trump is the beginning of a fascist state. Hitler gets bandied about a lot, but Trump is behaving exactly how decades of totalitarians and dictators have when they are put in power: gaslight the population, concentrate power in their immediate circles, appoint sycophants with plans to destroy the institutions they are asked to administer, fueling hate crimes and hate speech. Lots of people didn’t think it would happen in Germany (or Romania, or Yugoslavia, or Iraq, or ….) But then it does, and it has, and appallingly there are lots of people and press outlets bending over backwards to normalize Trump and his election. White supremacists are literally throwing parades for Trump. THIS IS NOT NORMAL OR TOLERABLE.

Obviously this is a disaster for pretty much American who isn’t an affluent, cisgender heterosexual able-bodied white male, and it’ll be a disaster for plenty of them too. There’s a straight line between social justice and environmental justice, and as much as I am fearful for what will happen to marginalized people in the US, Trump’s election has pretty much sealed our collective fate to a dangerously overheated planet. There are some things that can be fixed with improved policy after a disasterous president, but we as a planet will not be able to fully recover from four years of decimated environmental protections and measures, four years of unchecked oil and gas exploration and extraction, four years of inaction at best and harmful actions at worst. We barely had time to fix this mess as it was.


The role for Canada and Canadian science community is straightforward: HOLD THE FORT. Be the beacon of progressive, expansive, tolerant inclusion that we like to think exemplifies Canada. Be the unwavering voice that stands up for human rights and civil liberties. Be the leader pushing for stronger environmental standards, reduced emissions, a carbon tax. Be the squeaky wheel on the international stage. Keep reporting, keep talking, keep the lights on. Do not capitulate.

Here, specifically, is what I think the Canadian scientific community should do:

  • Actively look out for our colleagues, here and abroad. Check in, ask how they’re faring, listen. Behave in such a way that your colleagues will answer honestly when you ask how they are rather than reply with platitudes and niceties. Actively intervene when people say racist / sexist / homophobic / transphobic / ableist / etc things, and not just when someone’s looking. Press your professional organizations to actively support human and civil rights movements. When organizing conferences or meetings, make sure that they are inclusive, and make that clear in the conference paperwork. Don’t hold meetings in places that are actively hostile to minority scientists. Science is a challenging enough profession without having to fight tooth and nail to assert your full humanity. This is already hard for many scientists, and is about to get a lot harder: as people not living in a soon-to-be fascist state, we non-minority Canadian scientists need to make it easier to be a minority scientist in our (international) professional circles.
  • As teachers, talk about this in the classroom. Draw the connections between civil rights and environmental activism. Don’t ignore this. Science does not occur in a vacuum, and Trump’s election will have a very real and very harmful impact on how science is conducted in the US and possibly abroad. Teaching science effectively means teaching how it fits into a broader social context, and the many hidden ways in which basic, applied, and regulatory science make our lives safer and more productive. Actively make your classroom and office an open and welcoming place for your students, and reach out to the organizations on campus who’re providing support for marginalized students.
  • Start talking about your science with the public, or at least actively support those who do. Climate change is putting science squarely in the middle of discussions about economics, foreign policy, international trade, and public health, and for those discussions to be effective we need a basic level of science literacy amongst the populous. I’ve seen a lot of sniffy attitude directed towards people who take the time to talk about science to non-scientists, and this needs to stop. There are increasing resources and platforms for scientists to build their non-expert communication skills, including Science Borealis. Support your colleagues who are undertaking this important work, rather than denigrating their efforts.
  • We finally have a government that at least acknowledges that science is important. We now know not to take that for granted, and we need to continue to press for evidence-informed policy. It will be easy to ignore science in favour of stability and good relations, and we need to push back hard against that urge. The scientific community learned a bitter lesson under the Harper governments, and we cannot become complacent because now the Prime Minister reels off a prepared bit about string theory. We’ve marched on Parliament Hill before, we should be prepared to do it again (and again, and again) as necessary. Climate agreements don’t magically ratify themselves.
  • Support the organizations that are on the front lines fighting for marginalized folks. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Mother Jones, Planned Parenthood, etc will need all the help they can get.
  • Read the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s report and recommendations. Part of stepping up to the international plate to lead is getting our own house in order, and there is a distressingly long way to go towards reconciliation with indigenous peoples. As the Dakota Access Pipeline shows, indigenous communities bear much of the brunt of environmental harm, and lack the lobbying power of settler communities and resource extraction corporations. Indigenous peoples are dramatically underrepresented in the scientific community, and the scientific community has much to answer for how we have historically treated indigenous peoples. More scholars are engaging with traditional knowledge, but the scientific community as a whole needs to be very careful not to treat traditional knowledge as another resource to be extracted for settler use. Reading the TRC is a way to start to understand the context for settler – indigenous relations.

We as scientists should be doing much of this already, but it will become far more difficult for our American colleagues to be outspoken. As Canadians, however, we must keep pushing for sound science, environmental justice, and human rights, here, in the US, and around the world.

Science Borealis Carnival: National NMR Facility Faces Closure

To celebrate our one year anniversary, Science Borealis is having a blog carnival! While the theme is “The Most Important Science News in My Field in 2014,” I’m interpreting this somewhat loosely. I think the biggest on-going story in Canadian science is the sustained active cuts and passive underfunding of scientific research from the Harper government; however, this is by no means contained to this year, and to some extent, physics and astronomy has not borne the brunt of these cuts the way environmental science has. This is not to say that the state of Canadian physics, astronomy, and space science is uniformly rosy and healthy: lots of programs and institutions have weathered funding cuts and grant programs that have been allowed to lapse, and, notably, the Canadian Space Agency got a failing grade in Evidence for Democracy’s Can Scientists Speak? report. (Environment Canada, which has been one of the most visible sources of frustrated scientists unable to speak about their work, got a C-.)

The 21 T magnet at the National Ultrahigh Field NMR Facility for Solids

Possibly the most unassuming looking world-class physics lab in the nation. Source:

But to the best of my knowledge, no physics or astronomy facility that can be described as “the only one of its kind in Canada” has yet had to shut its doors as a result of the war on science. (If you know of one, please let me know!) However, this may change early next year, as the National Ultrahigh-Field NMR Facility for Solids is in peril of closing permanently in March 2015. (The lab announced in late November that barring immediate reprieve it would be closing on December 1, but emergency funding was found, and the lab will remain open until March.) The NUF-NMR facility houses a 21 Tesla magnet, which is used to probe into the atomic structures of biological samples and novel materials. This magnetic is the strongest magnet in Canada, and the strongest magnet in the world dedicated to studying solids. All NMR work requires a strong magnetic to resolve the fine differences in nuclear emission spectra, but the stronger the magnetic the higher the resolution of the emission spectra, and the more elements that can be analyzed in the apparatus. Since this is the strongest magnet in the nation, if this lab closes there will be no facility in Canada that can analyze materials with magnesium, gallium, germanium, zirconium, indium, barium, or lanthium. Note that these are not all rare elements: it’s not just research into rare and exotic materials that would be curtailed by closing this lab.

The facility’s funding woes started in 2012, when scientific infrastructure funding was frozen for a year, and the NRC was overhauled to be a business-oriented lab for hire rather than a public research institute. The facility is housed in an NRC building, and received funding and support from the NRC before the restructuring. However, after the restructuring, the support was not renewed, and the funding the NRC had already committed ran out this year. The lease on the space from the NRC is $100,00 per year, and the directors estimate that another $160,000 is needed to cover operational costs.

While this sounds like a lot of money, this is not that much. The facility cost $11.8M to build, and for the want of $0.26 M, may close because all the grant programs they previously applied to (successfully, presumably) are now shuttered or restructured. Not that my research is comparable, but when I got my notification of resource allocation from Compute Canada last year, they included an estimate of how much my allocation would cost (were I paying it out of pocket, which I’m not, obviously). My modest allocation, for one grad student’s work, cost ~$75,000 per year. Obviously the funding sources are wildly different, but for the price of four modest supercomputer allocations, you could keep a unique Canadian facility open for another year. That is not even close to an outlandish sum of money for the substantial scientific payoff it provides.

This has been a theme of the war on science: while the budget cuts are presented in terms of efficiency and fiscal responsibility, many of the casualties have had modest budgets and outsized scientific impact. The fisheries library in New Brunswick that was shut (along with several others) comes to mind: the government spend several million dollars renovating an updating the library, and then closed it months later to save a few thousand dollars. I chalked that up to an ideological motivation, given the sustained hampering of environmental science work, but now it seems like there’s at least some haphazard slash-and-burning going on too.

I’m surprised that the NMR facility is facing such a funding crunch in part because this facility seems to be exactly the sort of lab that the government is supposedly trying to foster: NMR is used in a lot of applied and industrial science, especially materials science and biological physics. That they qualify for not a single grant program is baffling — surely with all this focus on funding industrial and applied science, there would be expanded funding programs for facilities that do that work? Much of the scientific community has said that this “refocussing on applied and industrial science” rhetoric is empty at best, and the NUF-NMR’s situation is good evidence that that’s not just dark or bitter speculation. None of the work listed on the facility’s research page has obvious political ramifications the way say the ELA’s publication list does. A lot of it sounds very useful, and much of it (particularly the pharmaceutical section) looks like it could easily be economically profitable. That a world-class facility like this is facing imminent closure, shuttering multiple research programs at universities across the country, is a clear indication that all science is under attack in Canada, not just the science with potential political ramifications.

Since the facility’s situation has come to light, the NRC has agreed to waive the lease temporarily (read: until this is safely out of the news), and from the sounds of the lab’s news page, there are negotiations in the works to secure some measure of stability. That’s good, but it’s only a matter of time until the next funding crisis comes around, and that’s likely to be sooner rather than later.

iPolitics Article Arguing for Scientists in Cabinet

I’ve got an article up today on iPolitics about why I think we need cabinet members with scientific backgrounds in the science-based portfolios. To be crystal clear, I don’t think that cabinet members in science-based portfolios who don’t have science backgrounds are automatically ineffective or ill-informed — there have been lots of effective ministers and critics without science backgrounds. However, I think having scientific expertise in Cabinet brings an important and often underrepresented perspective to the table, and given how climate change is affecting many aspects of Canadians’ lives, evidence-based science policy is becoming imperative.

Lowlights from The Throne Speech

Here, (not-so-)briefly, are some bits of yesterday’s Throne Speech. The full speech can be found here. Sarcasm abounds — I am, predictably, not overly thrilled with this speech.

  • Whole lot of contemplation of the 150th anniversary of Confederation, which is in another four years, ie, after another election. Why on earth is that the framing focus of this whole thing? There’ll be at least one new Parliament before then and probably a few more throne speeches — it makes no sense.
  • Our Government will enshrine in law its successful and prudent approach. Our Government will introduce balanced-budget legislation. It will require balanced budgets during normal economic times, and concrete timelines for returning to balance in the event of an economic crisis.

    Recipe for economic disaster when coupled with the insistence that tax increases are anathema. Need to have some flexibility in budgeting to deal with shifting economic situations.

  • It will reform disability and sick-day entitlements and work with employees to get them back to work as soon as possible.

    That doesn’t sound like it could backfire, no siree.

  • Our Government will take further steps to see that those traditionally under-represented in the workforce, including people with disabilities, youth, and Aboriginal Canadians, find the job-training they need.

    There are plenty of people who fit one or more of these categories who’re trained to the teeth and still can’t find appropriate work. Training is not the end of the solution, and educational debt needs to be a major aspect of the discussion around this (and is not mentioned).

  • Our Government recognizes the tremendous potential of Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations to strengthen the growing Canadian economy. It will continue working with First Nations to develop stronger, more effective, and more accountable on-reserve education systems.

    Because they’ve been doing a fantastic job of this so far. There’s no institutional underfunding, no obstructionist attitudes, nothing of the sort!

  • The Government will soon complete negotiations on a comprehensive economic and trade agreement with the European Union. This agreement has the potential to create 80,000 new Canadian jobs.


    The United States remains Canada’s biggest and best customer. Our Government will continue implementing the Beyond the Border and Regulatory Cooperation Action Plans to speed the flow of people, goods and services between our two countries.


    And our Government will amend the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act to allow Canadians to take beer and spirits across provincial boundaries for their own use.

    Yep, that definitely needed to be in a Throne Speech grouped with those other two things.

  • Continue reading

Initial Thoughts on Yesterday’s Cabinet Shuffle

We here in Canada had quite a major cabinet shuffle yesterday, precipitated in part due to the departure of a few major cabinet ministers. So, the five positions with the most sciency-ness are now held by:

  • Minister of State for Science and Technology: Greg Rickford (Kenora) replaces Gary Goodyear (Cambridge)
  • Minister of the Environment: Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut) replaces Peter Kent (Thornhill)
  • Minister of Fisheries and Oceans: Gail Shea (Egmont) replaces Keith Ashfield (Fredericton)
  • Minister of Natural Resources: Joe Oliver (Eglington-Lawrence) remains in the position
  • Minister of Health: Rona Ambrose (Edmonton-Spruce Grove) replaces Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut)

Let’s go one by one. I’m pleased that Goodyear is gone, because having a science minister who dances around the question of whether or not he believes in evolution is frankly embarrassing. Rickford has worked previously as a nurse (though his law degrees are more emphasized in the bios I’ve seen), which is a step in the right direction. But he’s the MP for Kenora, the riding of the Experimental Lakes Area, and he was previously a vocal proponent for closing the site. So, we’re not exactly off to a flying start.

Based on her previous role as Minister of Health, I’m not convinced that Leona Aglukkaq has the chutzpah necessary for her new portfolio. Environment is a portfolio that can easily be trampled over by many other portfolios (industry, natural resources, finance, etc) in the name of economic progress, perhaps moreso than other portfolios, and to my mind, the mark of a strong environment minister is someone who’ll go to bat for their portfolio (and, by extension, the environment). Peter Kent was spectacularly bad at this, not just passively letting other interests take precedent, but actively hindering efforts at making Canada a more sustainable, environmentally sound nation. I’m not saying that all ministers must be world experts at all aspects of their portfolio, but I think it does behoove them to get at least a working knowledge of the major aspects of their portfolio. It’s easy to snipe at Kent about not knowing what ozone is, but it belies a lack of knowledge about one of the major components of the environment, and the ozone question/lack of answer came up almost a year after he’d been appointed Minister of the Environment. It’s not like he’d just gotten the portfolio and hadn’t had time to get up to speed on it. So given all that, I’m guessing Aglukkaq will be a step up — but I’m worried that the department will continue to be chipped away and slowly dismantled, as she won’t effectively stick up for it when budget time comes around.

Fisheries and Oceans is one of those departments that I wish got more coverage than it does. We’re surrounded by three oceans, have an *enormous* ocean coastline, and yet don’t seem to give much of a hoot about marine science. The fisheries end gets more press than the ocean end, since that’s got a more obvious economic impact, but I feel I have a spectacular lack of data to form any reasonable opinion on the Gail Shea of Keith Ashford. Maybe it’s an issue on the deparmtent’s end, maybe it’s an issue on the press’s end, and most likely there’s a combination of factors that leads to DFO rarely making the news. Whichever way it goes, I’ll try and keep a better on eye out for press on Fisheries and Oceans.

Natural resources (which has a predominantly economic mandate rather than a scientific or conservationist one) is currently steam rollering all over the Ministry of the Environment, and since Joe Oliver is staying on, I suspect that’ll continue unabated.

And lastly, Rona Ambrose takes over Health. Whoever is here will likely helm the negotiations for the federal-provincial health accord next year, which sets the funding structure for provincial health care programs for the next (I believe) ten years. Health Council Canada is an independent committee that has overseen the implementation of these accords in the past; its funding was eliminated earlier this year, and it will close likely just before the new health accord is negotiated. (Convenient timing!) I’m decidedly not thrilled about her appointment, considering her voting record while she was Minister responsible for Status of Women. She seems to actually espouse a lot of the farther right policy measures put forward by the government (rather than just toeing the party line), and while I admit that that’s gut feeling and speculation, I’m not happy about the idea of her helming negotiations to fund socialized health care.

A sort of secondary (or at least a more chronic issue than a Thing That Needs Attending To Immediately) is the continual lack of MPs with strong science backgrounds. Laywers and bankers and business folk of all stripes are a dime a dozen in Parliament, but doctors are rare, and scientists and engineers are even rarer. This isn’t to say that a laywer cannot be an excellent Minister of State for Science and Technology, but an MP with a more direct background in science — whether that’s industrial science, academic science, theoretical or applied science — will bring a more relevant perspective to the portfolio. Having worked as a scientist will likely give a Minister of Science a more tangible view of how policy set forth by their portfolio affects Canadian science, scientists, and citizens than a working as an attorney would, and I think that perspective is important.

So, in short (ha!), things’ve shuffled around a bit on the science end of cabinet, but there’s not to really cheer for. On the other hand, I spent my bus ride home trying to think who among the current slate of Conservative MPs I would actually want in any of those five positions, and…… I drew a huge blank. There’s no-one that I’d pick out and say “aha! You would make an excellent Minister of the Environment!” on the CPC caucus. There may well be people who’d do an excellent job in some of the roles (or would were they not severely hampered by their own party’s machinations), but none come to mind. I’m curious — who would you want to see in these positions? Who’m I forgetting or overlooking?

The NRC’s Restructuring is Another Data Point in Canada’s Scientific Regression

Last week, Minister of Science Gary Goodyear unveiled the new and restructured National Research Council. Rather than working on both basic and industrial science, the NRC is now focusing solely on the industrial side of science. While some parties have welcomed the restucturing, the usual chorus of critics (including yours truly) has piped up in protest.

The move isn’t seismic — the NRC has traditionally been a supporter of industrial and applied science, though it was not its entire mandate. Along with industrial science, the NRC (in addition to running the time signal which has beeped across Canadian radios since 1939) has supported basic and regulatory science, which is a niche that is now unfilled. The NRC was unique in that it spans all sciences, and many of the specialized agencies were formed from departments in the NRC. It is an important umbrella group that fosters cross-discipline innovation, and yes, helped build ties to industry. Industrial science is important, and little of the criticism I’ve heard claims it isn’t. But without basic science exploring new and uncharted realms of science, industrial science doesn’t have ground to work from. Basic science maps the terrain, and then industrial science takes that knowledge and makes concrete goods and economically viable products with it. Both components are important, and having both aspects of research operate in the same agency increases the efficiency and cross-pollination between researchers. Cutting out basic science form the agency threatens to drastically reduce the effectiveness of the very programs this restructuring puts front and centre.

It’s unclear what precise policies the NRC will now follow, but this bit from a piece by Annie Bergeron-Oliver leaves me with a lot of questions:

In essence, the NRC will act along the lines of a contract-based agency; businesses will be encouraged to pitch research ideas to local NRC offices, or even by email. The idea is that the new process will streamline research, leaving hypothesis testing to academics, and providing NRC scientists with predetermined research plans, added McDougall.

Egads. Contract-based agency sounds like industry is driving the mandate of the NRC, rather than the NRC having a mandate and working with industrial partners. It also sounds like the NRC is going to end up focusing on short term, disjointed work rather than long term, progressive projects. Long term work is often more fruitful and more insightful than a hodgepodge of short term projects. The NRC has a history of long term, large scale projects, including developing canola, radar, the pacemaker, and building the reactors at Chalk River (an internationally renowned source of medical isotopes). None of these are short-term projects, but all have been economically lucrative and had a significant impact on society.

I’d maybe be a bit less worried about this refocus if a) it weren’t the latest data point in a string of cuts and restructurings that’ve threatened basic science and independent research and b) Gary Goodyear didn’t go around saying things like

“It will be hopefully a one-stop, 1-800, ‘I have a solution for your business problem'”

as quoted in a CBC piece in March when this restructuring was initially proposed. (The quote in the CBC piece is oddly chopped and doesn’t form a complete sentence, so I’m quoting all I can.) But the NRC should not be primarily about business: it is (was) an organization focussed on both basic and applied science, much of which has industrial applications, and is done in concert with industrial partners. But the science came first, and industrial partners were partners, not contractors. It is (was) certainly not “a solution for your business problem,” which sounds like a tagline to a management consultancy firm rather than a description of a federal agency. It’s ridiculous and worrisome, to say the least.

I’m beginning to think that I should maintain a page here on ECS with a list of all the cuts, restructurings, and silencing of Canadian science and scientists by the Harper government that’ve come to light in the press. It’d be illustrative to have everything ennumerated in one place, and maybe help draw a more complete picture of how Canadian science is tangibly under siege. Would this be useful or interesting? Let me know what you think in comments or on Twitter.

Addendum, May 14th: From a piece on published today:

Appointed NRC president three years ago by Stephen Harper, John McDougall does not have a PhD, has never published a scientific paper, or received a research grant. His qualifications for the job are a civil engineering degree that he turned into a job with Esso as a petroleum engineer.

So the head of the National Research Council has absolutely no experience whatsoever in research. At this point, though, I think I’d be more surprised if they *did* have research experience. The whole Rabble piece is well worth a read, and this is about the most succinct summary of Harper’s attitudes towards science I’ve read in a while:

The Harper government punishes its winners because it claims Canada performs poorly when it comes to registering scientific patents. The so-called solution is to wind down basic science, and hand over scientific resources to companies.

The Scientists Strike Back

With some notable exceptions, scientists are not generally habitual rabble-rousers, at least not in their capacity as an Official Representative Unit of Science. In my experience, many of them have deep political convictions, and are not shy about sharing them, but going out on the street en masse as scientists (rather than as ordinary citizens) is not a common sight — I can’t remember the last time scientists took to the streets to protest policy. So when a couple thousand of scientists in lab coats and funeral wear converge on Parliament protesting the Death of Evidence, something is going on.

The Death of Evidence protest was organized by some scientists (mainly grad students, I believe) at the University of Ottawa, and was timed to coincide was a very large evolutionary biology and ecology conference in Ottawa to attract more marchers from across the nation. The list of policies that the protest was targeting is long and broad:

The Harper government has embarked on a systematic program to impede and divert the flow of scientific information to Canadians through two major strategies. The first involves the gutting of programs and institutions whose principal mandate is the collection of scientific evidence. Examples of this include:

  • Cutting the mandatory long-form national census.
  • Major budget reductions to research programs at Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Library and Archives Canada, the National Research Council Canada, Statistics Canada, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
  • Decisions to close major natural and social science research institutions such as the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area, the National Council of Welfare and the First Nations Statistical Institute.
  • Closing of The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka, Nunavut

Mr. Harper’s second strategy is perhaps less overt, but even more insidious: to impede the bringing forward of scientific evidence into the public debate. Examples:

  • Not renewing the The National Science Advisor in 2008.
  • Dozens of instances of censoring of, impeded access to, and coercion of government scientists, a practice which Minister of Environment Peter Kent has justified as merely in keeping with “established practice”.
  • Shutting down the National Round Table on Environment and Economy (NRTEE), an arm’s length advisory body providing independent advice on environmental protection and economic development, because the government didn’t like its advice.

This is beyond death by a thousand papercuts: this is more like death by hundreds of axe wounds. I’m not saying that every federally-funded science initiative needs to be funded in perpetuity without any evidence (there’s that word again!) that it’s viable and productive research. I am saying that when multiple scientifically flourishing initiatives are having their funding unceremoniously ended, with no credible evidence presented to back up that decision, things start to fail the sniff test.

Continue reading