Silence of the Labs Panel Discussion, January 27

At the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy, Evidence for Democracy hosted a special screening of the CBC documentary, Silence of the Labs, followed by a panel discussion. The event is part of current efforts to raise public awareness of the Harper Government’s “war on science.” The film and the panel discussion drew attention to the Harper Government’s unprecedented slashing of scientific research programs, mass dismissals of federal scientists who do not fit Harper’s economic and corporate agenda, curtailment of scientists’ freedom to speak to the public, and systematic dismantling of institutions, laboratories, and information databases that are crucial to our knowledge of Canadian society, environment, and public health.

The panel consisted of University of Toronto academics:

Dr. Margrit Eichler (Social Justice Education, and president of Scientists for the Right to Know)

Dr. Steve Easterbrook (Computer Science and School of the Environment)

Dan Weaver (physics graduate student and Evidence of Democracy Board of Directors)

Three salient themes emerged across the panelists’ commentaries on the film and the current political situation confronting Canadian scientists with dire implications for future public and environmental health.

  1. The Creation of Public Ignorance

First, speakers emphasized the Harper Government’s production of public ignorance by shutting down scientific projects which have been generating vital data on environmental, social, and health conditions. Margrit Eichler, in particular, referred to the Harper Government’s agenda as one of systematic ignorance based on a three-pronged attack on science across the environment, human rights, and international development. Dan Weaver referred to how the Harper Government has impeded public scientific literacy, imposing scientific illiteracy by muzzling scientists who must seek ministry permission to speak to the media and the public. Weaver importantly noted that Canadians cannot understand the impact of policy decisions if scientists cannot freely speak to the public about their research results.

  1. Dismantling Canada’s Infrastructure for Generating Knowledge

Second, the panelists shared concerns about the dismantling of Canada’s epistemological infrastructures such as the closures of long-standing research laboratories, public libraries, and important repositories of information that it has taken decades to build. Dan Weaver used the example of the government’s decision to shut down the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in 2012, only one year after researchers discovered a hole in the ozone layer which required greater, not fewer, resources for environmental monitoring. Although PEARL was restored in 2013, it has been operating at reduced funding and personnel capacities. Easterbrook highlighted the particular importance of federally funded science which needs to provide institutional support for lines of scientific inquiry specifically directed toward assessing the particular risks of government policy. According to Easterbrook, the erosion of federal support for environmental science involves the loss of key functions performed by federally funded research institutions to conduct scientific work relevant to guiding policy decisions. Easterbrook notes that this function cannot be simply appropriated by universities or corporate industries which have different objectives.

  1. Irrecoverable Loss of Data

Third, panelists expressed grave concern over the irrecoverable loss of data amid cuts which have disrupted ongoing long-term scientific studies which have been gathering data over several years. Steve Easterbrook emphasized the loss of data as the bigger picture of long-range implications of the federal government’s dismissal of scientists and the end to scientific research programs and institutions. Easterbrook explained that government cuts have disrupted long-range studies that have been monitoring environmental risks to assess and anticipate levels of risk before they escalate to catastrophic proportions. Government cuts have consequently caused a gap in that data which can never be restored. Eichler, who stressed that the war on science includes social scientists, emphasized this loss of data in the context of the eradication of the long-form census. Eichler indicated that one of the implications is that the data from the 2011 census is consequently unuseable, forcing researchers to rely on data from 2006.