Last Friday, a new University of Toronto student group called Students for the Right to Know hosted their first event, Better Science Policy in Canada, a symposium about the struggles with scientific research and science communication in our current political environment.
Co-hosted by the Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology and Scientists for the Right to Know, the conference brought together scientists and politicians from many fields. The discussion was focused on the current problems with science policy and how we, as students and as members of the public, can help turn the tables and make Canada a place where science and scientific research can thrive again. However, the first step may still be to increase public awareness about the fact that there is a problem.
The conference opened with a talk by Margrit Eichler, who is the founder of Scientists for the Right to Know, as well as a professor emerita of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and a dedicated activist. Eichler wasted no time and opened her speech by immediately outlining the ways in which the federal government is attacking particular areas of general knowledge in Canadian society. She focused especially on environmental issues involving climate change, human rights, international development, and the restructuring of the National Research Council into a “concierge for industry.”
“The forms of attacks go from direct attacks, to weakening the infrastructure, to limiting access to data, to muzzling scientists, to targeting charitable organizations, and to creating bureaucratic obstacles,” Eichler said before pointing out various examples for each of those points.
“Canada now ranks fiftieth in terms of freedom of information,” Eichler said at the end of her speech.
An impressive number of speakers continued to give talks throughout the rest of the conference. These lectures outlined a broad range of areas in Canada that are being affected, both in terms of the efficiency of conducting scientific research, as well as the social consequences of poor communication between scientists and the public.
Much emphasis lay on the Arctic regions of Canada. Christianne Stephens, a medical anthropologist at York University, explained how funding cuts are affecting culture, identity, and health of Canada’s indigenous populations. Additionally, U of T PhD candidate Pamela Wong discussed the complex manner in which lack of communication between scientists, government, and Inuit populations are affecting both Canadian polar bear populations and, by extension, the local people who share their environment.
Other speakers included recent graduate of the History and Philosophy of Science PhD program, Rebecca Moore; Edward Fenner, researcher at York University; Curtis Forbes, PhD candidate at the Institute for History and Philosophy of Science at U of T; and, finally, Liberal Member of Parliament Ted Hsu, who discussed the importance of having accurate and evidence-based science in politics.