Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Wrong Way to mix Politics and Science

The Green Party isn’t ideological: without a right-wing or left-wing viewpoint, our policy isn’t biased with a socialist or capitalist perspective. Instead, we espouse evidence-based policy, basing proposals on what actually works in the real world instead of on wishful thinking.
Sadly, this is something unknown today at the federal level. The Harper government is strikingly anti-science, cutting funding from basic research and keeping scientists and their findings hard for the public or media to access.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed by scientists themselves, who in general, are the most non-political bunch you will meet. The politicization of science is done by politicians, not scientists. A notable example is in the United States, where right-wing ideologues try to paint climate researchers as supporting all kinds of supposed socialist schemes simply because they are proving fossil fuels cause dangerous global climate change.
Here in Canada, partisan attacks on scientists are rare (but not unknown), while a more common tactic is to put a wall between scientists and the public or media, requiring permission from political masters before talking to anyone about the results of publicly-funded research. Or simply to cut funding so they don’t have any results to report, especially not results that might not back partisan government policy.
We saw this with the gutting of the Canadian census. Supposedly to address privacy issues, the detailed mandatory census was made voluntary. Now the census is far less reliable and informative, yet more expensive to gather. Census data used to be an affordable way for citizens or non-profit organizations to gain detailed data to inform policy. Now, only business interests with huge amounts of money to spend can get that quality of data through private research. Meanwhile, citizens still must give intimate details of their lives to government in their tax forms, and the Conservative Party, in particular, has the most comprehensive voter database ever seen in this country. So what about those privacy concerns, were they just an excuse to prevent politically inconvenient evidence (such as falling crime rates) from being compiled?
This political meddling in science has gone so far that even the apolitical are speaking up. One year ago, over a thousand science supporters from across the country gathered on Parliament Hill to mourn the “death of evidence.” My friend Dr. Katie Gibbs, organizer of the event and founder of Evidence for Democracy, points out “Informed decisions are a fundamental part of democracy; we need information when we make our minds up about issues and when we elect people.”
As lamented by another friend Andrew Weaver, the Nobel-winning Canadian climatologist recently elected the first Green in the BC Legislature, instead of evidence-based decision-making, using science to inform our policy, we have decision-based evidence-making, where political masters control what scientists can learn or report, ensuring it doesn’t contradict their ideological dogma. This may be effective politics, but it is bad science, undermines democracy and leads to flawed public policy.

Update: the New York Times has published an editorial that echoes my concerns on this issue.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Political meddling in science has gone far too long".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

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