Scientists for the Right to Know (SRK), a scientific non-profit organization, hosted Canada’s Science Policy: A Debate on Friday, October 18, hosting a forum on the recent “war” on scientific development by the federal government. The event was held in conjunction with the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union, the U of T Faculty Association and the York University Faculty Association. Journalist Chris Turner, author of “The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Willful Blindness” moderated the proceedings.

The panel of speakers included Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada; Kennedy Stewart, NDP opposition critic for science and technology, and Carolyn Bennett, Liberal MP for St. Paul’s. Greg Rickford, federal minister of industry, science and Technology, did not attend the event, citing schedule conflicts. Debate organizers say that they asked for another Conservative representative but that no alternative was speaker was forthcoming.

The event featured a keynote address by Turner, prepared remarks from the panelists, and a question and answer session. Audience members — most of whom were university faculty — asked the Parliamentarians their views about the national media, the protection of scientific freedom, and the restriction of scientific discourse by the Harper government.

Dr. Margrit Eichler, president of SRK, noted the importance of science policy for Canada’s future, arguing that “without free communication of research to the media, the public, and among scientists themselves, science cannot flourish and democracy suffers.”

All three panelists opposed the current government’s approach, which Turner described as “do no science, hear no science, and speak no science.” In his address, Stewart highlighted the seven per cent reduction in federal science and technology funding since 2006, and talked about the resulting brain drain. “Scientists are leaving this country, and this is scary, because we aren’t going to get them back,” he said.

May drew applause for many of her comments, including an attack on what she called prime minister Stephen Harper’s “acceptance of ignorance” which, according to her, has given Canada the worst reputation of any industrialized country on climate science issues.

However it was the absence of a Conservative representative that was most emphasized throughout the proceedings. The absence was marked by an empty chair on stage and many critical comments from the panelists.

Eichler explained in detail her repeated attempts to get the Conservatives to send a representative.

Bennett attributed the lack of a representative to what she described as a system of control within the Conservative party. “There are certain topics that they are uncomfortable with and they don’t free up people to go. It is very tightly controlled from the centre,” she said, “There is only a downside to sending someone out that would make them look bad.”

The lack of political diversity also drew criticism. Dr. Anthony Bonner, professor of mathematical and computational science at the university, disapproved of the event marketing itself as a debate, as he did not feel there was equal representation.

“The panelists all seemed quite liberal, and the audience did as well. I can see why the Conservative didn’t show up; it’s like coming into a tiger’s den.”

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required