Footsteps For Facts

Science needs you: to get out there and march in its defence

Science | by Gregory Beatty

Last Earth Day, you might recall, millions of people took to the streets in over 600 cities around the world to support science and evidence-based decision-making. The March For Science movement (marchforscience.com) grew out of concern we were drifting away from principles of rationalism and critical analysis that had sustained us since the Enlightenment.

There are no shortage of villains in this drama, from politicians who serve as fronts for powerful political and economic interests that rarely (if ever) have humanity’s long-term interest at heart, to “weaponized” news and sophisticated disinformation campaigns on social media, to the Christian Right with its Prosperity Gospel and the broader popularity of religious and mystical beliefs that have deep roots in our primal/tribal past.

Basically, what we’re trying to do is transition to a new reality where we’re a technologically advanced, global species. It’s not an easy adjustment to make, and last year’s marchers say that the best tools for the job were those that got us to this point in the first place — namely, science and evidence-based decision-making.

That concern hasn’t abated, obviously. If anything, it’s grown. And guess what? A second March For Science is being held on April 14. Fewer events are planned and organizers don’t expect as large a turnout, but one offshoot of the first march was the creation of an international organization with 10 paid staff and a 10-member volunteer board who carry out advocacy year-round.

More than 200 marches are scheduled, and both Regina and Saskatoon are hosting events.

“In addition to being a celebration of what we have and how we’ve benefitted, it’s an action to underscore how important it is to sustain public support into science and technology development in Canada,” says University of Saskatchewan medical professor Julia Boughner, a co-organizer of the Saskatoon march.

Boughner points to the recent federal budget as one reason to celebrate. After a decade of belt-tightening and general contempt for science by the Harper Conservatives, the Liberals made a major commitment to fundamental research with special attention to diversity and equality.

“I hope it’s the beginning of more funding in subsequent budgets,” says Boughner. “This march [shows that] people are excited about what the government is doing, and that we’d like to see them do more.”

Fundamental Vs. Applied

Under the business-über-alles Harper government, funding was focused on applied research — where the goal is to produce a marketable product or service. That’s important, but it’s equally important to invest in foundational research, says Boughner.

“If anything, it generates more bang for the buck because it can be applied to all kinds of areas. Something like CRISPR, the gene-editing tool, came out of scientists’ curiosity about how a bacteria’s immune system works. That’s pretty esoteric, but it led to a tool that scientists around the world are using to study human disease, genomics and evolution.”

Private sector companies can, and do, conduct foundational research too. And Boughner applauds those that do.

“I’m impressed when I hear about the research Elon Musk and Google are doing,” says Boughner. “I feel, in some ways, these are benevolent dictators. No one can tell them what to do, they’re private industry, and if they choose to be forces for good then I’m sure that’s great, both for their profit margins and the rest of us.

“The strength of government funding is that, I hope, it has no agenda other than to improve the lives of citizens,” Boughner adds.

Ottawa’s focus on diversity/equality in the budget is a prime example. But again, that makes good scientific and economic sense.

“A sizeable amount of money is being invested in gender-balanced research,” says Boughner. “The Canadian Institute of Health Research, for instance, is investing in projects that have male and female [scientists] and male and female representation in the study group. So there’s a clear and determined strategy to increase our knowledge about males and females, and not just treat women as men with slightly different bikini bits.”

Failing Grade

The day this issue went to press (April 10), the Saskatchewan Party government dropped its 2018-19 budget. Had it delivered a similar boost in funding to science and education, marchers would’ve really had something to celebrate.

Unfortunately, austerity was the dominant theme, and education and research didn’t escape unscathed.

It was no surprise, though, as the government has long expressed a preference for a “rip it and ship it” model of economic development over the surging knowledge-based, creative sector. It’s 2012 axing of the Film Employment Tax Credit is a cruel example of that philosophy, where the government knee-capped an industry that, in Manitoba and Alberta today, generates over $160 million annually in economic activity based largely in digital media and technology.

Not cool Sask. Party.

But economics aside, major investments in education, fundamental research and sound policy analysis based on the best available evidence are desperately needed.

“On our poster, I put the words ‘Because, apparently, the world’s not fixed yet’ because there’s so much to do,” says Boughner. “Investing in [these areas] will help us tackle some really unpredictable problems such as climate change, food and water security, and global health.”

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, a recent Abacus Data poll showed almost 40 per cent of Canadians either didn’t believe in climate change, or felt that evidence tying it to human activity was inconclusive. The poll wasn’t statistically accurate, but it was still dismaying. And it shows the effectiveness of a relentless disinformation campaign that critics have compared to the infamous “no link between tobacco use and cancer” propaganda war that Big Tobacco waged in the 1950s and ’60s. And we all know how that turned out.

Scientists are anxious to take on climate change and other challenges and make the world a better place, says Boughner. But they can’t do it alone.

“We need help from government and industry, and we need help from the public who are paying the taxes because we are the people who vote. When we show up at a March For Science, and there are hundreds if not thousands of us gathered, it’s much harder to say no one cares about this issue.”

The March For Science will be held at the Saskatchewan Science Centre on April 14 at 2 p.m.