A Review of Tuesday’s Get Science Right Town Hall in Halifax

Despite everything that has gone wrong, the passion for science in Canada remains unbroken.

What an amazing success. Tuesday’s Get Science Right town hall in Halifax’s Central Library was packed with an estimated 200 attendees. The event’s proceedings have been covered by Halifax Media Coop, and an interview with the panelists was published by Chronicle-Herald. CAUT, DFA and ANSUT sponsored the event, and I thank Donna Balkan (DFA) and Matthew Furlong (ANSUT) for organizing it.

A photo from the audience of Halifax’s Get Science Right town hall. Source: tweet by @AndyFillmoreHFX.
A photo from the audience of Halifax’s Get Science Right town hall. Source: tweet by @AndyFillmoreHFX.

Several candidates for federal office were in attendance:

I think it is remarkable that so many candidates chose to attend the town hall – it is an incredibly busy time for each of them – and speaks to the importance that they place in the role of science in Canada. It also shows how the war on science has become an election issue.

Also in attendance were representatives from associations and unions:

  • DFA: David Mensink, Catrina Brown, Darren Abramson and Donna Balkan – president, past president, executive committee, and communications, respectively;
  • ANSUT: Marc Lamoureux, Rudi Meyer and Matthew Furlong – president, treasurer and communications, respectively; and
  • PIPSC: Everett Scott, Patrick Potter, Matthew Macleod, and Tony Purchase – president Halifax DND branch, member at large Halifax branch, president national executive (research group), and collective bargaining, respectively.

There were a number of retired federal scientists (formerly represented by PIPSC) in the audience.

Finally, there was a delegation from Dalhousie University:

I would be remiss not to give a shout out to the professors and students of Physics & Atmospheric Science, the entire class of ENVS 3501 (Introduction to Environmental Problem Solving) and members of Divest Dal whom I saw in the audience. Hopefully I haven’t missed anyone!

The event started off with four short talks:

  • Tom Duck provided an overview, beginning with the Death of Evidence March and noting the cuts to science programs, the muzzling of scientists, the dumpstering of science library collections, and the gutting of science-based legislation;
  • Britt Hall spoke about the Experimental Lakes Area, including the important contributions it has made to science and public policy, how the government shut it down, and how it was saved by a coalition of citizens and scientists;
  • Peter Wells discussed the closure of the DFO libraries and implications to access to knowledge, the cutbacks of Parks Canada staff, and the loss of ecotoxicology programs in DFO and EC; and
  • Katie Gibbs spoke about how Canadians are pushing back, including the excellent work of Evidence for Democracy and its science pledge and the results of its questionnaire of federal parties on science issues.

Ian Stewart was masterful in stitching together the narrative and moderating the event.

Britt Hall’s account of how the ELA program was cancelled was particularly compelling. The news was delivered in a telecon with DFO officials. During the telecon, an unidentified voice indicated the decision to close ELA had been made at a higher level than the DFO leadership. So who made the decision?

The public discussion after the talks was lively and informative, as expected. Some of the key points were:

  • Cuts to federal science programs, already underway, were dramatically accelerated by the Harper government;
  • Canada needs a parliamentary science officer, ombudsman, or similar person;
  • We need more science reporting from Canadian media, although their work in exposing the cuts and muzzling of federal scientists has been excellent;
  • Universities have also experienced cutbacks that are undermining research (e.g., PEARL; NSERC’s Major Resource Support program);
  • The motivations for the Harper government’s war on science are diverse, and appear to include prioritizing industry’s interests (particularly oil) and a desire to govern by ideology;
  • The priority of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) is resource exploration, not science;
  • Problems with government support for science are beginning to appear at the provincial level, most notably with Bill C-100 in Nova Scotia;
  • Arguments to shore up public interest science based on economics are needed;
  • PIPSC made an enormous contribution to the discussion with The Big Chill;
  • An inquiry to understand what happened to federal science libraries and science programs may be needed; and
  • How Canada compares to other countries in support for science depends on the survey.

Some of these issues I will touch on further in coming posts.

The most poignant moment of the night was when an audience member rose to speak about how they were there when a federal science library was destroyed. For two weeks the chief librarian, in tears daily, was forced to shred their own collection. It was described as “cruel and unusual punishment” for a librarian. Chilling.