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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Speak up for science 2013: Sarah Otto’s speech excerpts

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Sarah Otto, in black, is in the middle of the picture

Sarah Otto, in black, is in the middle of the picture

Last September several scientists gathered on the step of the Vancouver Art Gallery to speak up for science, joining other similar demonstrations across the country.  This has led to a fair bit of media coverage recently, noticeably Silence of the Labs on The Fifth Estate and a clip on Al Jazeera’s The Stream.  (For a good background, read Chris Turner’s The War on Science.  I have it at home, if anyone would like to borrow it…or read a review here)

The speeches are as relevant now as they were four months ago, unfortunately.  So I’ve collected some excerpts that I’d like to share for the next few posts.  (My main source is the Vancouver Observer, here.)

For this post I’ll start with Sarah Otto, a UBC Evolutionary Biologist and MacArthur Fellowship Recipient.  (You can read more about her here and hear her here.)  Here is some of what she said:

I was talking with a government scientist and they told me about their work and then they told me that they were asked not to publish this work. That disturbed me. But even worse was the reason they were told to not publish their work and that was “we want the public to forget about this species.” I don’t want to forget and I don’t think Canadians want to forget. We want to our children and grandchildren to see the diversity of life that we enjoy around us today.

I’m a big fan of industry specific research; it must and should be done. This kind of research aims to solve already identified problems with solutions that we already have a sense of. It is basic research that reveals the unknown problems. It is basic research that identifies solutions that lie beyond our current imagination. Only through basic research do we find new technologies and new paradigms. Reducing Canada’s funding for basic research means that we are less likely to be making the fundamental discoveries, discoveries that help us understand the world around and will help us lead the new technology of the future.

Scientists serve as an early warning system to Canada. We are the ones who are closely watching how the environment is changing, monitoring species, following invading species and following and tracking diseases. Canada can ignore this early warning system but personally I don’t want that and I don’t think anyone else wants that either. We want to know the risks and potential solutions to the problems we are facing. We want scientists to speak their findings and their concerns openly.

Ignoring science risks walking blind into the future, unaware of environmental and health risks. It takes away our ability to avoid problems early before they get so bad that remediation is a challenge if we can remediate at all.

Starting in 2007, scientists in Canada, government researchers, have been told that they may not speak publicly via the press without ministerial permission, permission that is often given too late if at all. Their voices have been muzzled.

Government researchers are the front line of researchers who aim to understand and protect our country from invading pests and diseases, who maintain natural resources and who preserve the great beauty and biodiversity of this country. This frontline group cannot tell you of their discoveries and concerns. This disturbs me. In the past year, scientific collogues who work in government have told me of their increased of being switched from project to project before their work is done, of  being so underfunded that critical research cannot be conducted, prevented from attending conferences to share their results of other scientists even if the conference was going to fund their attendance. They cannot speak to you today which is why we must speak for them.

Earlier this year in addition the DFO also restricted the publication and distribution of scientific papers. They’re not only restricting scientists from speaking with the public. They are also restricting the ability of scientists to share their results with other scientists. Before submission must know have review and approval by the division administration.

First scientists were muzzled from talking to you. Now they are muzzled from talking to other scientists.

Ten years ago Canada committed to protecting our endangered and threatened species by enacting the Species at Risk Act, which is called SARA. Before a species can be protected, its status has to be assessed by scientists. Scientists who do this are on the scientific panel established by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). COSEWIC is charged with evaluating evidence of species declines and risks. When COSEWIC finalizes their report, they send it the Minister of the Environment. The Minister of the Environment then communicates the report and its recommendations to government by sharing the files with the rest of cabinet. If Cabinet then decides to list the species under SARA, measures then begin: how do we act for the recovery and what actions will we take as a country? The law clearly states that the government has 90 days to respond to COSEWIC and nine months to make a decision about whether or not to list under SARA. Recent ministers have entirely short circuited the Species At Risk Act. They have not forwarded the COSEWIC files to the rest of cabinet to even be evaluated for starting the process.

… These aren’t occasional delays. Of the 71 files that COSEWIC put forward in 2011 and 2012, only 2 have been shared with the rest of cabinet. Even those two are telling. In one, COSEWIC had new data to show the short head sculpin was less at risk reducing its status from threatened to one of special concern.  In the second case, it was known that new data about oolichan fish had been uncovered and government knew that COSEWIC had to reevaluate this file. That file was officially received. The other 69 species, the ones that SARA was meant to protect, remain in limbo. Those files remain on the desk of the Environment Minister. Until those files are received, there is no planning for recovery, no meaningful public input, no guidelines for action.

Failing to communicate the files of COSEWIC to cabinet stops the process of species protection.  The Minister’s delays deprive Canadians of our right to contribute to an informed decision about whether and how to protect a species. Which species are we talking about? Species like loggerhead sea turtles, bobolink black birds, several species of lake sturgeons and pollinators that are at risk of global extinction.

Also at risk are three species of bats that have been decimated by white nose syndrome, so much so that the government of Nova Scotia asked that there be an emergency action under SARA so that recovery planning could be sped up. COSEWIC delivered an emergency assessment twenty months ago. That file still sits on the Minister of the Environment’s desk. It has not yet been communicated or officially received.

This disturbs me.

Reduction of science into policy has happened at the same time that there has been a reduction of funding provided to scientists for basic science research. Since 2008 there has been an overall reduction of 13% to basic science funding in real dollars. At the same time there has been an increase in industry specific research  by 34%.


Written by enviropaul

January 19, 2014 at 11:30 am

4 Responses

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  1. […] So I’ve collected some excerpts that I’d like to share for the next few posts. My first post of this series was about what Sarah Otto had to […]

  2. […] ago.  I have collected some excerpts to share in this blog; the last two featured exceprts from Sarah Otto and Thomas Kerr.  The bulk of the material comes from the Vancouver […]

  3. […] excerpts to share for the next few posts. Previous posts include excerpts from the speeches of Sarah Otto, Thomas Kerr, and Alexandra […]

  4. […] excerpts to share for the next few posts. Previous posts include excerpts from the speeches of Sarah Otto,Thomas Kerr, Alexandra Morton, and Lynne […]

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