Is basic science taking a back seat in policy development?

Is basic science taking a back seat in policy development?

There is a mantra that I hear all too often in reference to environmental management. “We can’t manage what we don’t measure.” While I agree, it seems to be me that we rarely measure enough to make truly informed decisions, and things are getting worse. Government mantras appear to be evolving into something like “absence of data equals absence of scrutiny” or perhaps more aptly “absence of public data equals absence of public scrutiny.”

The most recent fatality of this trend is an Arctic lab that conducts basic science, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka. Its funding has run out. In recent years the lab’s operations were largely funded through the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. The Foundation was formed in 2000 and has granted in excess of $100 million for atmospheric and climate science. All federal contributions to the foundation ended with the change in government, also meaning an end to the foundation. (Perhaps it was to be replaced by the Canada School of Energy and Environment.) The cost of PEARL has been cited as $1.5 million per year. Several researchers have commented that this will create a gap in knowledge in Arctic climate. Bob McDonald has noted that the decision “once again lowered this country’s environmental reputation on the world scene.

This comes on the heels of another science based controversy with scientists speaking out at a recent conference about the muzzling of federal scientists.  An editorial in the journal Nature  notes

Policy directives and e-mails obtained from the government through freedom of information reveal a confused and Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.

If we are to make informed policy decisions we need a fulsome approach to conducting research and open and public discourse on how the science should be reflected in policy.  The difficulty I have with “we can’t manage what we don’t measure” is that the first thing to get cut is basic science, and even when we measure it, it is becoming increasingly unclear whether the information will form part of the public policy dialogue. Further, we have a system that appears to be focused more and more on grants for research tied to economic returns.  If an immediate economic return is not going to result from science, i.e. most basic science, it’s toast. So when a government claims to make a decision and policies based on the “best available science,” be aware; they likely had a significant hand in what science is “available.”

On the lighter side – Rick Mercer, captured the muzzling issue quite well recently.

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