At WSIC’s last event, two speakers persuasively made the point that preventing government scientists from sharing their advice with the public is foolish policy. Professor Jeffrey Hutchings, Professor of Biology at Dalhousie, criticized the Conservatives, but also offered a first-hand account of how such policy affected the Eastern fishery under the Liberals. Around 1992, the Cod fishery was collapsing, and Liberal government permission for fishing was at odds with scientific evidence. Now, it may be fair to have policy that is contrary to science, but John Crosby predicted that cod would rebound in three years. This percentage rate of growth far-exceeded scientific evidence, but his statement had the appearance of being based on science. The government claimed that if cod was listed as an endangered species it would cost our economy $82 million, and then schools and business would have to close. Scientific evidence showed not all fisheries would have to be closed if we just changed our methods.
Today our Fisheries Act dictates that the habitat of fish must not be destroyed, and fish are protected. However, 80% fish are not protected by this Act, and many native fish are not listed.
The difference is that in 1992 the media could ask government scientists about their evidence. Today, it is nearly impossible.
Stephen Strauss, a science journalist, explained how much red tape exists in trying to get an interview or access to information these days. I appreciated his point that these restrictions, harmful as they are to good policy, are not even politically wise. Both speakers said that this policy is demoralizing to our scientists, damaging to our national reputation, and likely to affect recruitment.
What do they suggest? Contact your MP. Ask to re-establish the Office of Chief Scientific Officer. Demand that all government scientific evidence be peer reviewed, and make larger studies publically available.
Citizens need to know the rationale for government policy. For example, if our government says that more jails will reduce crime, and says the science supports that, we ought to know whether scientists employed by the government are advising against such a policy. Under the current rules, the media would need to request access, and the scientist would need to submit all questions and answers to the Ministry for pre-approval. If the Ministry does not want information to be released, the media request may not be approved.
Most leaders want to control the message, and Harper is the master of that. Moreover, and this is a point the speakers either denied or only hinted at, current Conservative ideology poses an obstacle to evidence-based policy: the disregard for climate change, the tough on crime agenda, anti-gun-registry, making the long-form census optional, and budget cutting and streamlining of impact studies, scientists, etc. Not surprisingly, the government doesn’t want the public to be aware where the science counters their policies. The speakers and the audience had various ideas to press our government to change that (e.g., write letters).
This was my first WSIC event, after trying for so long to find a free night to attend. I think it’s such a great organization. The setting is intimate; the participants are very engaged and informed. So I’ll be back at the Duke, because I do care.
- By Daryl Landau
Stephen Strauss’ Opening Remarks
Dr. Jeff Hutching’s Opening Remarks
The collapse of cod, the loss of cod represents the greatest of a vertebreate in Canadian history. We tend not to view it that way, in facts nobody views it that way but that is the way it is, but I can tell you that it represents a loss of about 2 to 2.2 billion fish but this won’t mean a lot when we get to the billions but what if I told you that the total loss of cod is equal by weight to 27 million humans that might put it into some context to give you a feeling of not only biological loss, the ecosystem loss but also from a socioeconomic perspective that source of protein and a source of income for many people and when the fishery closed 40,000 went out of work overnight, so that has an impact on someone like me working in the athor??? (00:55) thinking how government science is related to society. At the time I saw something happening that I thought were appropriate for example I saw government spokespersons talking about the reasons for the collapse of the cod fishery that were not consistent with scientific advice. I was directly involved with doing scientific research with my late colleague Ranson Meyers, we did a lot of work in this and so did others but what government spokespersons were saying was that the cod collapse that the seals, strange water temperatures, other things instead we took too many fish. One of the reasons for saying that was what is happening today is not new. This happened both with the conservative and liberal governments at the federal level, but what I will says is that some of the controls taking place today was not foreseen back in the 1990s. When I was a DFO and a journalist contacted me and it was my first interview with CBC radio in 1994 “can you come down to the studio within 2 hours. Will you be there?” There’s no approval, you didn’t have to pass no media line you just went. In fact you were supposed to fill out a half page form afterwards telling people what you did but most of it were archived. It’s very different today, journalist contacts government scientists you must submit questions beforehand, the ministry office must approve the questions and typically the scientists must provide the answers to the misister so that the communications minister can determine whether the answers the scientists provide is appropriate or not. This might sound odd but there are multiple examples of this happening today. So what might be a good form of scientific advice what kind of models might I think of? I chaired a national science advisory committee of species at risk for 4 years it’s called COSEWIC, Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, and it’s responsible for advising the federal minister of the environment which species should be included in the species at risk list in Canada. Which species are endangered? What is the threat? That is something that is up to the federal government to decide. Here is what the scientists are saying but whether we are going to list it or not because you list the species you might mean restrictions on the ability of individuals or companies to kill species or harm them or their habitats. So it is up to the politicians to decide whether to list the species but the advice to do so is provided by an arm’s length scientific body, an arm’s length from government. When this body advises the federal government it advises the government at the same time that it tells the public what the advices is so there is no opportunities for filtering the advice in any form. The government gets it the same time you get it. And lastly, the advice is based only on science, not on socioeconomics, not on political considerations, not on management considerations, only on the science. The great thing about that model in my mind is that it allows society to judge what politicians do and the politicians should be making the final decisions, personally, as to whether to list the species or not because they are the elected officials not us, but I think as a citizen of the country I want to know what the scientific advice was and I don’t want it filtered through some political machinery. Another thing that comes to mind with respect to science and why it’s important to think about how it is communicated has to do with peer review. Science as a practicing scientist, when you want to publish something you have to go through a peer review process. Our manuscripts are literally torn apart often by reviewers and often rejected because the science isn’t worth it, there’s problems with the methodology, people think you’re being speculative and that’s fine that’s part of the pros and cons, the to and fro, of gaining knowledge, basically. So if you interfere with communication of science though you are interfering with science because science is communication. You take taht part out of the equation and you are affecting science, full stop. Now, one of the problem that can arise is when government making decisions that appear to be based on science but in fact are not, and if you don’t know what the science is how would you know whether they’re being truthful or not. Let me give you a quick example, as I said before I chaired a scientific body and one of the recommendations of this body is to recommend that cod be included as in endangered species in Canada’s national list of species at risk. The minister of the day, a liberal, Jeff Reagan, the ministry of fisheries and oceans, said we are not going to list cod because if we listed cod rural schools will be closed, there will be a cascading effect on the economy and it will take $82 million dollars a year and we will have to close every fishery that cod is caught is caught either directly or by accident, in other words, what we call by-catch. So this sounded really horrible and as a member of society why would you list cod if all this catastrophe is going to would happen. Then if you ask the question what is the scientific basis of the ministry’s decision to close all fisheries at a cost of 82 million dollars a year? You find out from DFO scientists, I can give you the documents and they’re on the web, that indicate that, in fact, their opinion that by-catch fisheries were not . You have to shut down the targeted cod fishery. You wouldn’t have to shut down every other fishery. But that was the message the minister communicated. That strikes me as rather inappropriate. At least as a minimum, let’s be honest about the science. What it is and what it isn’t. I’m not sure he actually knew. But his advisors did know. There’s another issue that comes into play and that is scientists are expected to adhere to an ethics code, civil servants I should say. All civil servants have to adhere to an ethics code, values and ethics code. You can look at it on the web. One of those key elements is that civil servants are expected to loyally follow the leader of the day and their decisions as opposed to thinking of their accountability to parliament and society and what this ultimately led to are situations and feelings that are shared by a lot of Canadians as well that scientists shouldn’t have a right to speak about their work in an unfettered way and it should be up to the minister because they`re part of the big parliamentary process, the government process. But the thing is what you might not realize is that first of all between the scientists and the minister there are many layers: deputy minister, assistant deputy ministers, associate assistant deputy minister, director general manager, director and then scientists but it’s actually not the minister that’s key it’s the staff in the ministerial office unless you have a very strong minister who really knows his or her portfolio extremely well then it’s the staff in the minister’s office who are ultimately making, they`re the gatekeepers in many instances. I have identified a couple of departments that are currently like this but I’m not going to name them. Suffice to say, that as member of the public do we know who those people are? Do you know who the staffers are in the ministry offices? Even if we look their names up do we know what their backgrounds are? Do we know what their experiences are, their education, and their qualifications? And yet at the end of the day you’d be surprise to know how much influence that these non-elected, essentially unknown individuals have on day-to-day decision making as gatekeepers of communications of knowledge, including science. I’m not going to say much more I’ll give one last example of how science can be misused and I’ll go back to the cod fishery because it is something that strikes at the heart of things. It’s the cod fishery, the collapse of the cod fishery that really, it’s a really good example, of what happens when you put economic development first and foremost when that’s the one thing that matters and everything else does not matter. What happen then 30-40,000 people goes out of work; 3 to 4 billion dollars of social aid to Newfoundlanders, 10% of Newfoundland emigrate within a decade. This was a huge sociological and biological loss. And what did the science said at the time? In 1992, John Crosby, the minister of the day predicted the population of the cod will rebound within 2 year and the basis of that is a graph at a press release and if you ask the question on a scientific basis and I ask this question to my third year students every year? I say of course as a scientist, what rate of growth is required for the cod to bounce back in two years to a level that hasn`t been seen in 20 years? It turns out the percentage rate of growth far exceeded the available scientific information. So again we have a scientific, science-based decision that has huge socioeconomic importance, to your fisherman, that your fishery will be back in 2 years. What a sin. That wasn’t the case at all. It was a decision that appears to be based on science but was not based on science. It was not even subjected to peer review by scientists. Lastly, the fishery act changes, I don’t know how many of you follow what happen to the fall last year. In 1976 the fishery act protected the habitat of all fish and as a developer you could not undertake projects that destroy the habitat of fish. And of course if you protect the habitat of fish you’re protecting the habitat of many things in the water: plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians and so on. Now, what is happening now is instead you cannot do serious harm, a question of what that mean, to the fish that is part of the fishery. Commercial, aboriginal, and recreational fishing. What that means if the minister had sought scientific advice he would have been told that about 80% of Canada’s species of fish will not be covered by the act anymore. It actually means that non-native fishes can be covered be covered by the act whereas native cannot. We’ve got pacific salmon in the great lakes, a fish that is part of the fishery. We’ve got brown trout throughout parts of Canada, they’re native to Europe, and they’re not native to Canada. In fact, in Ontario there’s an intricate hybrid of something called the Splake. It`s a combination of a lake trout and a brook trout or a speckled trout when you interbreed them, you produce thing called the Splake, they cannot breed on their own. They were produced in the 1960s to combat the sea lamprey coming into the great lakes they’re still produced today stocked into the lakes of Ontario. That Splake can be protected but minnows cannot be. Anyways, that’s a recent example of what happen when you don’t incorporate science. And lastly, I guess the thing that gets to me as in individual is when you think about who we are as a society where we have come over the number of decades and ask the question whether the muzzling, the inappropriate filtering of the communication of science really reflects who we are as a society. I don’t think it reflects who I am as an individual. I think collectively it is something we have to decide upon but the controls that have been put in place in the last 6 to 7 years have existed to some extent in the past but never quite to the extent they do today. And another reason why this matters to Canadians is that we have the longest coast line in the world. We’re the second largest country by landmass, we have one third of the boreal forests in the world, and we have one fifth of the fresh water in the world. We are international stewards of vast mass of the world’s environment and we should be judged as such and deal as such, and it is not clear in my view we are up to the task of it and we should be called on that. And so in closing then in terms of action, I know you’ve been told many times, contact your MP and actually that is incredibly important. And if you want to give a single solution, the one I fall back on now is to re-establish the office of the chief scientific advisory to the Prime Minister. One of the first things that Prime Minister Harper did when he came into power back in 2007 was to get rid of that office. Every other western democracy has an office of chief scientific advisor. In the UK these are incredibly top scientists; they’re Nobel prise winners in the US. In Canada we don’t have a chief scientific advisor to the head of government and I think that says a lot and I think if we re-establish that it would symbolically identify a role of science in society and would some of the problems I touched upon a little bit easier to deal with.