Tag Archives: Council of Canadian Academies

Out of the labs and onto the campaign trail

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Federal scientists are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. That’s why they recently formed a committee to, you know, “take a decision” as to whether they should become, um, more “politically active” in the run up to the next general election.

Yes sir, that’ll show Stephan Harper and his crude bunch of beach bums who like to kick sand into the faces scrawny of nerds clutching slide rules.

Under the circumstances, then, it is perhaps appropriate that the acronym for the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union representing 15,000 government researchers who now find that their activist bones are aching is PIPSC, which one might waggishly contort into “pipsqueak”.

Still, as the Hill Times reports this week, the “move” to become formally agitated is “an unprecedented step from the union, breaking from its non-partisan position, to run and ‘evidence-based campaigned aimed at informing voters of the current government’s record. ‘Our members who are scientists and certainly feeling the brunt of the policies and cuts that have led us to take this exceptional position,’ said Peter Bleyer, a special adviser to PIPSC president Debi Daviau, speaking on her behalf.”

Others with less tentative natures might more properly ask Ottawa’s eggheads: What took you so long?

For years, the Harper government has treated publicly funded science as its own private think tank. It has systematically prevented researchers on its payroll from discussing their work with peers and colleagues elsewhere in the country and world and routinely run interference with the media.

More than a year ago, PIPSC released its own evidence: “A major survey of federal government scientists. . .has found that 90 per cent feel they are not allowed to speak freely to the media about the work they do and that, faced with a departmental decision that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many (86 per cent) would face censure or retaliation for doing so.

“In particular, the survey also found that nearly one-quarter (24 per cent) of respondents had been directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons and that over one-third (37 per cent) had been prevented in the past five years from responding to questions from the public and media.

Finally, “the survey found that nearly three out of every four federal scientists (74 per cent) believe the sharing of scientific findings has become too restricted in the past five years and that nearly the same number (71 per cent) believe political interference has compromised Canada’s ability to develop policy, law and programs based on scientific evidence. According to the survey, nearly half (48 per cent) are aware of actual cases in which their department or agency suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public, industry and/or other government officials.”

This is, of course, standard operating procedure for any class of leaders whose need to control the message exceeds its willingness to accept the facts, however inconvenient these may be.

Still, if this nonsense is occurring, the odds are it’s happening not just once and a while, but daily. If that’s true, why hasn’t PIPSC been more regularly and reliably vocal about the problem, until now? After all, public attitudes in Canada towards scientists and science, in general, are warm compared with those in certain parts of the UnIted States and Europe.

According a Council of Canadian Academies’ study, published earlier this year, “Approximately three-quarters of Canadians agree with statements such as ‘all things considered, the world is better off because of science and technology’ and ‘science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable.’”

The research also found that on “an index based on standard survey questions assessing beliefs about the promise of science and technology, Canada ranks 9th out of

17 industrialized countries. . .On an index based on standard questions assessing public reservations about science, Canada ranks 1st among the same 17 countries, indicating low levels of concern about any potentially disruptive impacts of science and technology. Public reservations about science in Canada have also declined on average since 1989.”

Given such evidently widespread support for science in the vast lay segment of the Canadian population, perhaps it’s time PIPSC considers changing its name to more accurately reflect a new, less hesitant brand statement – something like “fighting injuries to evidence, research, common sense, and enquiry.”

Call it FIERCE.

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The unscientific methods of Canada’s politicos

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Despite claims of mounting evidence to the contrary, Canadians are, indeed, a scientifically minded folk after all. Or perhaps we only wish we were in the face the awful truth about our patently dunderheaded ways.

In either case, a special panel of the Council of Canadian Academies is trenchant in its most recent findings on the subject. Having interviewed hundreds of people and reviewed trunk loads of data and “peer-reviewed literature”, the organization has produced what it boasts is the “clearest picture of Canada’s science culture and science culture support system in 25 years.”

In response to the question, “What is the state of Canada’s science culture?”, the panel concluded, that “Canadians have positive attitudes towards science and technology and low levels of reservations about science compared with citizens of other countries.”

What’s more, “Canadians exhibit a high level of engagement with science and technology relative to citizens of other countries; the level of science knowledge (in Canada) is on a par with or above citizens of other countries for which data are available” and “Canada’s performance on indicators of science and technology skills development is variable compared with other OECD countries.”

All of this may come as a nasty surprise to certain Conservative MPs who have made much mischief in recent years propagating the fiction that all science is, in fact, just a matter of opinion (the corollary being that one opinion is just as valid as any other, because, gosh darn it, we live in a democracy and in a democracy that’s how we roll thank you very much).

Still, if we appear hopefully and outwardly rationale to the trained eyes of the nation, dutifully respectful of logic and the scientific method, how do we explain this report, which appeared on the front page of the Globe and Mail last week: “The fate of one of the federal government’s toughest crime bills is in doubt after the House of Commons sent the wrong version on to the Senate, which debated that version and sent it on to a committee for further study.”

Apparently, the errors in the Senate’s iteration of the bill are so egregious they compromise the very purpose of the proposed legislation, which is to strengthen the rights and representation of victims of major crimes.

How’d this happen? Conservative MP David Sweet, who sponsored the bill, was darned if he knew, but trusted all would be well in the end. “There has been an administrative error that I found out about between the House of Commons and the Senate administration,” the Globe quotes him as saying. “So the legislation that was in the hands of the Senate was not the legislation that passed the House of Commons. Measures are being taken.”

Of course, even in science, mistakes happen. But they don’t generally occur at the most mundane, routine levels of research – activities that are, in this case, analogous to the clerical work that House of Commons staffers undertake to move federal bills forward.

The real outrage against logic, here, may be the assumption that across-the-board job cuts in the public service necessarily results in better efficiency for less cost.

To be fair, though, money is tight everywhere. Just ask Canada’s premiers and territorial leaders, who were meeting in Charlottetown last week to decide, among other things, which menu to order lunch off of, as the subject of interprovincial trade barriers was likely to cause a collective bought of severe indigestion.

Fortunately, taxpayers won’t be on the hook. . .not entirely. As has been widely reported, mostly by the Ottawa Citizen, the premiers have managed to secure a total of $450,000 in private-sector sponsorships from such Canadian corporate heavyweights as the Insurance Brokers Association of Canada ($150,000) and Manulife ($50,000).

Even Unifor and the Canadian Union of Public Employees are in on the act.

The wholly unscientific assumption at the centre of this cogitation is that Canadians will not view the practice of branding with private logos a political meeting convened to pursue the public interest as utterly rank and quite likely undemocratic.

Heck no, said conference host Prince Edward Island Premier Joe Ghiz.

“In my opinion it’s about supporting democracy, it helps save taxpayers’ money,” he told the Charlottetown Guardian last week. “If we’re bringing in people from all over the country, I want to show them a good time.”

Behold, dear reader: critical thinking so very hard at work.

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