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.

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