Scientists protest outside of the canadian parliament buildings

Scientists protest outside of the canadian parliament buildings (photo: deathofevidence.ca)

It takes aboot thirty seconds to figure out that I’m a moose-loving, eh-saying, igloo-building Canuck. While living abroad, this has always been a source of pride. But a grim change in the Canadian political climate has begun to sour Canada’s reputation among the international scientific community.

Since being elected in 2006, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party have gradually been limiting the ability of federal scientists and other government workers to talk freely about their work in the media. Both Canadian scientists and their international collaborators have been required to sign documents that limit their ability to respond to journalists, without first vetting their answers with a government media-relations officer.

Complaints from Democracy Watch, a non-profit that advocates for government accountability, have recently prompted the Information Commissioner of Canada to initiate an investigation to determine if the current policies are legal.

Many believe that the Harper agenda is motivated by the Canadian fossil fuel industry. Alive and booming in Harper’s home province of Alberta where, not-so-coincidentally, his political base also resides. Political motivations aside, one idea is uniting the international scientific community: That the muzzling of Canadian scientists and their collaborators is harmful to scientists and citizens alike.

The arguments against the Harper agenda are numerous and poignant. You can read about them in this Nature editorial magazine or at BBC News. They certainly bear reading, but probably not repeating.

But for young scientists considering a research career, Canada has become a less hospitable option. As a result, the consequences of Harper’s policies on future innovation may long outlive his administration. Under the current political climate, an increasing number of scientists, myself included, are less likely to return to Canada after training abroad.

Which, oddly enough, brings me to this… Math time! Let’s crunch a few numbers to see what, aside from the loss of young innovators, the muzzling of scientists is costing Canadians.

According to Statistics Canada, the average government subsidy per university student attending a public institution, such as my alma mater McGill University, is about $20,000 per year. Add to that the research scholarships provided to me by the government-funded Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (the equivalent of NSF, here in the U.S.). Together, this is more than $175,000 government dollars and counting funneled into my post-secondary education. Gee thanks Canada!

Now I imagine that tax-payers are looking for a return on their investment. Perhaps they hope that I will study abroad to gain expert training and skills, and then return home to pump back innovative ideas into the Canadian economy, or provide quality education to the next generation. Seems fair enough. But with the current restrictions on access to information, I’m reconsidering a move back to Canada – and I’m not the only one.

A quick, and admittedly unscientific, survey of some Canadian PhD friends and colleagues studying at Harvard and MIT revealed that this sentiment is common among the youngest generation of scientists.

Now how about you citizens south of the 49th parallel? You baseball-playing, y’all-saying, beer-chugging Yanks. Have you escaped Harper’s ever-expanding gag order? Unfortunately, no.

Foreign collaborators, both in the U.S and abroad, who work with Canadian researchers, may be subject to severe restrictions. A particularly devastating consequence to the large amount of climate research done by American scientists in the great white north.

Andreas Muenchow, a physical oceanographer at the University of Delaware, collaborates with Canadian government scientists on Arctic research. On his blog, he expressed concerns about the language in a research agreement that the Canadian government has asked him to sign.

Muenchow writes, “I feel that it threatens my academic freedom and potentially muzzles my ability to publish data and interpretation and talk timely on science issues of potential public interest without government interference.”

He posted excerpts from the agreement that stated: “Any technology, data, or other information of any kind related to or arising from the project shall be deemed confidential and neither party may release any such information to others in any way whatsoever without the prior written authorization.”

Allowing special interest groups to control the accessibility of publicly-funded research under the guise of government mandates. Very scary. Removing the current restrictions will require engagement [read: justifiable outrage] from both Canadian citizens and the international scientific community.

 

Erin May is a PhD candidate in Chemical Biology at Harvard University.