To the mournful tune of a lone saxophone scientists marched through the streets of Ottawa and onto Canada’s Parliament Hill to protest a glut of cuts to government research labs and — they say — a lack of evidence-based decision making in the Canadian government.
The 10 July rally drew an estimated 2000 scientists, graduate students and their supporters to the sunny capital, many of them dressed in white lab coats; smaller protests took place in other cities across the country including in Regina, Guelph and Calgary.
The protesters accuse the Harper government of shutting down Canadian scientific agencies because they threaten to expose the environmental impact of fossil fuel extraction, particularly from the Alberta oil sand, and of mining on Canadian lakes and rivers.
“That’s a story that [Canadian Prime Minister] Stephen Harper doesn’t want you to hear,” said Maude Barlow, the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, an advocacy organization that works to promote green water and energy policies, in her speech outside the Houses of Parliament.
Cuts to the Canadian federal budget this year have meant the closure of various scientific programs, including the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a 44-year-old research station that houses a system of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario. ELA provided the first evidence for acid rain, and diagnosed the effects of mercury pollution and synthetic hormones on aquatic life.
“Society has learned a tremendous amount [from these lakes],” said Jeff Hutchings, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the President of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution. “It [will] be tremendous loss, and not just to Canadian society, because [the lakes] generates knowledge of importance to any country with lakes,” he told Nature.
The cuts are imminent. The first of Canadian government scientists will lose their positions at the beginning of August , and the closure of the ELA is slated for April next year.
“The government would like to have universities take over this facility, [but] in this time frame that almost certainly won’t happen…[the facility] will [therefore] presumably be moth-balled, taking with it decades of internationally renowned research,” said Hutchings.
In response to today’s protest, Gary Goodyear, Canada’s minister of state for science and technology, released a statement that claims the Canadian governments commitment to supporting science. “Our government is investing in science and research that is leading to breakthroughs that are strengthening our economy and the quality of life of all Canadians.
“While the government is returning to a balanced budget, science, technology and innovation remain a strong priority with an added $1.1-billion investment over five years,” he said.
But Ian Rutherford, Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society based in Ottawa points out that the protest is not just about a failure by the government to fund science. “There is an insidious campaign to muzzle scientists, to keep science out of the news, to… make science unimportant,” he says. “I think it is wrong. The scientific community has to stand up and say this is nuts.”
One environmental scientist, Kringen Henein of Carlton University in Ottawa, told Nature: “I’m really depressed… I just became a grandmother…and what is my grandson’s country going to be like in forty years if this is the way we are going?”
UPDATE: An earlier version of this blog stated that 5000 participated in the march, according to an organizer’s count. The revised figure of 2000 is based on a police estimate.