Canadian scientists protesting

In mid-September about 200 scientists, students and supporters gathered near the national parliament buildings in Ottawa, Ontario. They, and others in major cities across Canada, protested what some are calling a “war on science” being waged by the Canadian government.

The “war” includes cuts to research, closing of research facilities, and gags on scientists employed or funded by the government to keep them from discussing their work in public. The protesters, many in white lab coats, carried signs saying "Let Scientists Speak — The Public Needs to Know" and "Desperately Searching for Intelligent Life on Parliament Hill.''

"Public funding of public science is essential," said Dr. Kapil Khatter, an Ottawa family doctor, to the gathered crowd. "It's public science that told us asbestos was harming workers while the asbestos industry was telling us it was fine.”

Exposure to asbestos has long been known to cause the deadly lung cancer mesothelioma. Canada has been a major producer of asbestos, and the government supported the asbestos industry until just last year.

Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote in the New York Times that the government of Canada is keeping scientific information from reaching the public, “especially concerning research into climate change, fisheries and anything to do with the Alberta tar sands “ The Alberta tar sands contain the petroleum that would flow to the Gulf of Mexico in the proposed, and controversial, Keystone XL Pipeline.

It is the policy of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to take money away from pure scientific research and instead support only research that directly helps specific industries. Scientists argue that this approach leads to bad science by limiting where scientific inquiry may go. Scientists say they are blocked from doing the kind of work that might reveal a proposed project would damage the environment, or find that a new product might pose a health hazard.

The restrictions apply to scientists employed by the government and also to independent research institutions that depend on government grants. There is nothing to prevent private industry from funding whatever scientific research it wants, of course. But private industry rarely is interested in research that doesn’t lead directly to marketable products. Realistically, if government is not involved in funding pure research, then pure research doesn’t happen.

Asbestos provides a good example of what can happen when industry controls science. The fire-retardant mineral has been a major export of the Canadian province of Quebec. In fact, in the 1960s Quebec was producing 40 percent of the world’s supply of asbestos. And by the 1970s, doctors were reporting that in mining towns, rates of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases were off the charts and growing worse.

In time, Canada banned most uses of asbestos, within Canada. However, the mining continued. By 2010, Quebec was producing 150,000 metric tonnes (about 165,346 tons) of asbestos annually and exporting 90 percent of it, mostly to third-world countries.

Meanwhile, Canada used its veto power to stop chrysotile asbestos from being listed as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam Convention. This amounted to a refusal to enter into international treaties limiting asbestos exportation. And the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) continued to document new cases of mesothelioma in the mining towns of Quebec.

It was Quebec, not the national government of Canada, that finally put a stop to asbestos mining. In 2012 Quebec elected a new premier, Pauline Marois, who had campaigned on a promise to stop asbestos mining. Once the mining had ended, Stephen Harper’s government had no reason to oppose international agreements against asbestos exports.

But the “war on science” suggests Canada hasn’t learned any lessons. The science that could protect Canada’s people and environment from industrial recklessness is being shortchanged.