Tag Archives: science politics

Wars (such as they are) on science

I hinted in a Jan. 27, 2017 posting (scroll down abotu 15% of the way) that advice from Canadians with regard to an ‘American war on science’ might not be such a good idea. It seems that John Dupuis (mentioned in the Jan. 27, 2017 posting) has yet more advice for our neighbours to the south in his Feb. 5, 2017 posting (on the Confessions of a Science Librarian blog; Note: A link has been removed),

My advice? Don’t bring a test tube to a Bunsen burner fight. Mobilize, protest, form partnerships, wrote op-eds and blog posts and books and articles, speak about science at every public event you get a chance, run for office, help out someone who’s a science supporter run for office.

Don’t want your science to be seen as political or for your “objectivity” to be compromised? Too late, the other side made it political while you weren’t looking. And you’re the only one that thinks you’re objective. What difference will it make?

Don’t worry about changing the other side’s mind. Worry about mobilizing and energizing your side so they’ll turn out to protest and vote and send letters and all those other good things.

Worried that you will ruin your reputation and that when the good guys come back into power your “objectivity” will be forever compromised? Worry first about getting the good guys back in power. They will understand what you went through and why you had to mobilize. And they never thought your were “objective” to begin with.

Proof? The Canadian experience. After all, even the Guardian wants to talk about How science helped to swing the Canadian election? Two or four years from now, you want them to be writing articles about how science swung the US mid-term or presidential elections.

Dupuis goes on to offer a good set of links to articles about the Canadian experience written for media outlets from across the world.

The thing is, Stephen Harper is not Donald Trump. So, all this Canadian experience may not be as helpful as we or our neighbours to the south might like.

This Feb . 6, 2017 article by Daniel Engber for Slate.com gives a perspective that I think has been missed in this ‘Canadian’ discussion about the latest US ‘war on science’ (Note: Link have been removed),

An army of advocates for science will march on Washington, D.C. on April 22, according to a press release out last Thursday. The show of force aims to “draw attention to dangerous trends in the politicization of science,” the organizers say, citing “threats to the scientific community” and the need to “safeguard” researchers from a menacing regime. If Donald Trump plans to escalate his apparent assault on scientific values, then let him be on notice: Science will fight back.

We’ve been through this before. Casting opposition to a sitting president as resistance to a “war on science” likely helped progressives 10 or 15 years ago, when George W. Bush alienated voters with his apparent disrespect for climate science and embryonic stem-cell research (among other fields of study). The Bush administration’s meddling in research and disregard for expertise turned out to be a weakness, as the historian Daniel Sarewitz described in an insightful essay from 2009. Who could really argue with the free pursuit of knowledge? Democratic challengers made a weapon of their support for scientific progress: “Americans deserve a president who believes in science,” said John Kerry during the 2004 campaign. “We will end the Bush administration’s war on science, restore scientific integrity and return to evidence-based decision-making,” the Democratic Party platform stated four years later.

But what had been a sharp-edged political strategy may now have lost its edge. I don’t mean to say that the broad appeal of science has been on the wane; overall, Americans are about as sanguine on the value of our scientific institutions as they were before. Rather, the electorate has reorganized itself, or has been reorganized by Trump, in such a way that fighting on behalf of science no longer cuts across party lines, and it doesn’t influence as many votes beyond the Democratic base.

The War on Science works for Trump because it’s always had more to do with social class than politics. A glance at data from the National Science Foundation shows how support for science tracks reliably with socioeconomic status. As of 2014, 50 percent of Americans in the highest income quartile and more than 55 percent of those with college degrees reported having great confidence in the nation’s scientific leaders. Among those in the lowest income bracket or with very little education, that support drops to 33 percent or less. Meanwhile, about five-sixths of rich or college-educated people—compared to less than half of poor people or those who never finished high school—say they believe that the benefits of science outweigh the potential harms. To put this in crude, horse-race terms, the institution of scientific research consistently polls about 30 points higher among the elites than it does among the uneducated working class.

Ten years ago, that distinction didn’t matter quite so much for politics. …

… with the battle lines redrawn, the same approach to activism now seems as though it could have the opposite effect. In the same way that fighting the War on Journalism delegitimizes the press by making it seem partisan and petty, so might the present fight against the War on Science sap scientific credibility. By confronting it directly, science activists may end up helping to consolidate Trump’s support among his most ardent, science-skeptical constituency. If they’re not careful where and how they step, the science march could turn into an ambush.

I think Engber is making an important point and the strategies and tactics being employed need to be carefully reviewed.

As for the Canadian situation, things are indeed better now but my experience is that while we rarely duplicate the situation in the US, we often find ourselves echoing their cries, albeit years later and more faintly. The current leadership race for the Conservative party has at least one Trump admirer (Kelly Leitch see the section titled: Controversy) fashioning her campaign in light of his perceived successes. Our next so called ‘war on science’ could echo in some ways the current situation in the US and we’d best keep that in mind.

Science and the 2016 US presidential campaign

An Aug. 10, 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) news release (received via email and issued on behalf of ScienceDebate.org) has elicited an interesting response from David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog. But first, here’s more about the announcement from over 50 science societies and organizations in the US regarding their list of 20 questions about science for the four 2016 US presidential candidates,

A blue-ribbon coalition of fifty-six leading U.S. nonpartisan organizations, representing more than 10 million scientists and engineers, are calling on U.S. Presidential candidates to address a set of twenty major issues in science, engineering, technology, health and the environment, and encouraging journalists and voters to press the candidates on them during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election season.

“Taken collectively, these twenty issues have at least as profound an impact on voters’ lives as those more frequently covered by journalists, including candidates’ views on economic policy, foreign policy, and faith and values,” said ScienceDebate.org chair Shawn Otto, organizer of the effort. A 2015 national poll commissioned by ScienceDebate.org and Research!America revealed that a large majority of Americans (87%) say it is important that candidates for President and Congress have a basic understanding of the science informing public policy issues.

The group crowd sourced and refined hundreds of suggestions, then submitted “the 20 most important, most immediate questions” to the Presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein, “along with an invitation to the candidates to answer them in writing and to discuss them on television,” said Otto. The questions and answers will be widely distributed to the science community, journalists, and the general public to help voters make well-informed decisions at the ballot box this November.

The list of organizations is a who’s who of the American science enterprise. “Sometimes politicians think science issues are limited to simply things like the budget for NASA or NIH, and they fail to realize that a President’s attitude toward and decisions about science and research affect the public wellbeing, from the growth of our economy, to education, to public health. Voters should have a chance to know where the Presidential candidates stand,” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “We want journalists and voters to ask these questions insistently of the candidates and their campaign staff.”

Nonpartisan organizations participating in the effort include:

**ScienceDebate.org
*American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Association of Geographers
*American Chemical Society
American Fisheries Society
American Geophysical Union
*American Geosciences Institute
American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering
*American Institute of Biological Sciences
American Institute of Professional Geologists
American Rock Mechanics Association
American Society for Engineering Education
American Society of Agronomy
American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists
American Society of Mammalogists
Association for Women in Geosciences
Association of Ecosystem Research Centers
Automation Federation
*Biophysical Society
Botanical Society of America
Carnegie Institution for Science
Conservation Lands Foundation
Crop Science Society of America
Duke University
Ecological Society of America
Geological Society of America
*IEEE-USA
International Committee Monitoring Assisted Reproductive Technologies
Materials Research Society
NACE International, The Worldwide Corrosion Authority
*National Academy of Engineering
*National Academy of Medicine
*National Academy of Sciences
National Cave and Karst Research Institute
*National Center for Science Education
National Ground Water Association
Natural Science Collections Alliance
Northeastern University
Organization of Biological Field Stations
Paleontological Society
*Research!America
Scientific American magazine
Seismological Society of America
*Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society
Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections
Society of Fire Protection Engineers
Society of Wetland Scientists
Society of Women Engineers
Soil Science Society of America
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
Tufts University
*Union of Concerned Scientists
University City Science Center
*U.S. Council on Competitiveness
The Wildlife Society
World Endometriosis Research Foundation America

*Codeveloper of the questions
**Lead partner organization

An Aug. 10, 2016 article by Brady Dennis for the Washington Post explains that while ScienceDebate.org organizers would prefer a debate they feel they are more likely to get responses to a list of questions they provide the candidates,

Climate change. Mental health. Space exploration. Vaccinations. The health of the oceans. Antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

These are not the typical meat-and-potatoes topics of presidential debates. Often, the candidates and people who ask them questions skip over such topics entirely.

But dozens of non-partisan groups that represent millions of scientists and engineers across the country are eager to change that. For the third consecutive presidential election, the folks behind ScienceDebate.org are asking candidates to hold a debate exclusively about major issues in science, engineering, health and the environment. Since that almost certainly won’t happen (it didn’t in 2008 or 2012, either), the organizers have put together 20 questions they are asking candidates to address in writing.

You can find the group’s list of 20 questions here.

As for David Bruggeman’s response, in an Aug. 11, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog, there’s this (Note: Links have been removed),

A point of blog history worth noting – I’m no fan of ScienceDebate, so you can guess the emphasis of the writing to come.

Yesterday ScienceDebate released the questions it wants the Presidential candidates to answer.  While it still makes the motions toward an in-person debate, past experience suggests it won’t do any better than receiving answers from the campaigns.

Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if the organizers actually engaged with the Presidential Commission on Debates, which sponsors the debates (for the general election) and sets everything up several months in advance.  While I doubt they would be immediately open to having a debate focused solely on science, they might be persuaded to make those questions a significant portion of a debate focused on domestic policy.

I recommend reading David’s post in its entirety for his speculations as to why ScienceDebate has not approached the Presidential Commission on Debates. Btw, thank you David for the information about the commission on debates. It certainly changed my take on the situation.

Death of Evidence rally comments roundup

The ‘Death of Evidence ‘ rally in Ottawa, Canada on July 10, 2012 (mentioned in my July 10, 2012 posting) attracted 1,500 or perhaps  hundreds of scientists according to the various accounts I’ve been reading. Bradley Turcotte provided an estimate of 1,000 in a July 11, 2012 article for Xtra newspaper (Canada’s Gay & Lesbian News),

More than 1,000 scientists and allies marched to Parliament Hill from the Ottawa Conference Centre July 10 to protest the Harper government’s sweeping cuts to scientific programs.
The death-of-evidence rally was modelled after a funeral procession; many protesters were dressed in lab coats, scientific garb or black attire. The marchers were led by a woman dressed as the Grim Reaper, and morose pallbearers carried a coffin symbolizing the death of scientific evidence.

Vance Trudeau, a professor at the University of Ottawa and president of the North American Society for Comparative Endocrinology, said the funding cuts will affect the health of all Canadians and compared the actions of the Harper government to those of a totalitarian regime.
“The tendency to use only data and evidence that you like is the misuse of information for alternative purposes. The definition . . . is known as propaganda,” Trudeau said.

Léo Charbonneau at his University Affairs (Association of Universities and Colleges of  Canada) Margin Notes blog offers another, higher estimate of how many marched and some additional information about the rally/march in his July 10, 2012 posting (Note: I have removed links),

Like any wake, there were some lighter moments but also an underlying seriousness as roughly 1,500 scientists, students and supporters rallied at noontime today on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to hold a mock funeral to mourn the “death of evidence.” According to the protest organizers’ website, “Until recently, evidence served a prominent role guiding the decisions of Canadian leaders. Its voice was tragically silenced recently after a series of severe injuries.”

The rallying cry for the event: “No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy.”

….

Scientists came to the rally from across Canada. Some were already in town for a conference on evolutionary biology. Among them was Simon Fraser University biologist Felix Breden. “It takes a lot to mobilize scientists who normally concentrate on basic science questions,” said Dr. Breden. “But the Harper government’s blatant disregard for science-based evidence and public consultation in the formation of its polices has motivated this march.”

Charbonneau has included a slideshow of the rally at the end of his posting.

The range of commentary I’ve been able to find online is largely supportive including this July 11, 2012 commentary by Alice Bell for the UK Guardian newspaper (Note: I have removed links),

Scientists seem to be forever complaining they’re marginalised so, it might be tempting to roll your eyes. When a group from the UK drove a coffin down Westminster last May they were described as “childish”. This recent Canadian action might look similar, but it was far from childish.

They weren’t simply sticking up for their pay cheques, they were sticking up for the right to ask difficult questions and provide uncomfortable knowledge, in particular when it comes to the Arctic. They were sticking up for the things they research as well as the right to keep doing their research. They were sticking up for the planet. The Canadian scientists who spoke to the Guardian were keen to stress this is less about research budgets versus the rest of the economy, and more simply evidence versus ideology.

The harshest criticism I’ve been able to find is from Tyler Irving in a July 9, 2012 posting on his Scientific Canadian blog,

So, are the Harper conservatives anti-evidence? Certainly it’s true that in some cases (the long-form census and the gun registry are two good examples) they have ignored certain facts in order to satisfy their electoral base. But that’s their prerogative: the fact is that all governments ignore advice, even scientific advice, when it suits them to do so. And unlike the loonies in some other countries, our government has made no moves to deny the truth of fundamental scientific principles, even controversial ones like climate change.

What’s more worrying to me is the idea that the changes they have made in recent years could impair the ability of future governments to take science-based advice, even if they want to.

As for my take on things, I agree with Irving that the cuts are not the ‘death of evidence-based science in Canada’. Equally, I’m not thrilled with the current trend towards less and less communication about research and science, especially since it’s paid for by taxpayers. As for specific cuts, I am still outraged by the decision to eliminate the obligatory long form census as there was no discernible reason. The loss of the Experimental Lakes Area seems to be another such decision.

Overall, this “Death of Evidence” rally is something I find hard to fathom. I don’t believe there is a precedent in Canadian history for this science protest. In concert with other activity I’ve noted here on FrogHeart (the ‘Don’t leave Canada behind’ protest letter/blog of a few years ago, rising numbers of Canadian science blogs, the advent of the Canadian Science Policy Centre, etc.), it would seem that we are entering a new age for science in Canada. A louder, more vociferous, more politically active science community appears to be emerging.

ETA July 13, 2012 3:30 pm PST: Marie-Claire Shanahan (last name corrected July 16.12) offers a more comprehensive roundup of the Death of Evidence media coverage in her July 13, 2012 posting and offers comments along this line (Note: I have removed some links),

Did I first hear about the protest from the CBC though? No, the first news I read about it was from the The Guardian in the UK, where it was reported a full four and half hours earlier. Similarly during the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference hosted in Vancouver in February 2012 there were panels and gatherings addressing the alleged muzzling of Canadian scientists. Where did I hear about them?  From the BBC.

ETA July 16, 2012: David Bruggeman at his Pasco Phronesis blog has weighed in with a July 14, 2012 posting titled, Would U.S. Scientists Stage a Mock Funeral? Should They? where he discusses the British and Canadian protests as well as speculating on possible future US protests,

Over the last two months both Canadian and British scientists staged mock funerals to protest funding decisions by their respective governments.  There are some notable differences between the two protests.  Two that attracted my attention relate to the people and institutions involved.

The British protest was focused relatively narrowly, on how one of the granting councils prioritizes research.  …

It’s a little too soon to know how effective the Canadian protest will be, but it is more broadly focused on the increasing difficulty government scientists are having in communicating with the public.

But I don’t have a definitive answer for the title question – would American scientists rent a caisson and casket to march down Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol?  The pending ‘fiscal cliff’ in the federal budget could notably impact science funding – the first among equals issue for U.S. science policy.  But science advocates in the U.S. have their fiscal pleading strategies and resist most urges to deviate from them.  I do not see a mock funeral in our future.  But I have been in Washington a long time.  …

The 3rd party analysis, which contrasts the British and Canadian protests is quite interesting. Thank you, David.

ETA July 19, 2012: The journal Nature weighs in with an open access July 18, 2012 editorial,

The sight last week of 2,000 scientists marching on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill highlighted a level of unease in the Canadian scientific community that is unprecedented in living memory.

The lab-coated crowd of PhD students, postdocs, senior scientists and their supporters staged a mock funeral for the ‘death of evidence’. They said that the conservative government of prime minister Stephen Harper intends to suppress sources of scientific data that would refute what they see as pro-industry and anti-environment policies. Their list of alleged offences against science and scientific inquiry is lengthy and sobering.

It is important to note that the Harper government has increased science and technology spending every year since it took power in 2006, and has made a serious and successful attempt to attract top researchers to Canada. It has also set its sights on bolstering applied research, an area in which Canada has been relatively weak.

Nonetheless, the critics’ specific complaints do give cause for deep concern — which is borne out by a close look at the specifics of the Harper budget that was passed into law late last month.

It is hard to believe that finance is the true reason for these closures. PEARL costs the government about Can$1.5 million a year, and the ELA Can$2 million. The savings from eliminating the NRTEE would come to Can$5 million — all from a total science and technology budget of some Can$11 billion. Critics say that the government is targeting research into the natural environment because it does not like the results being produced.

Instead of issuing a full-throated defence of its policies, and the thinking behind them, the government has resorted to a series of bland statements about its commitment to science and the commercialization of research. Only occasionally does the mask slip — one moment of seeming frankness came on the floor of the House of Commons in May, when foreign-affairs minister John Baird defended the NRTEE’s demise by noting that its members “have tabled more than ten reports encouraging a carbon tax”.

2000 is the largest number I’ve seen as an estimate for the Death of Evidence protestor count.  Contrary to my usual practice, I have not included any details about the organizations behind the abbreviations in the excerpt as I think it’s worthwhile to read the Nature editorial’s explanation f these agency cancellations. Frankly, they do better job of explaining than I can.