Out of the lab and into the fray

In mentioning the word “scientist” when describing one’s self, one runs the risk of evoking an image of an individual in a white lab coat, staring into a microscope, using a vocabulary so specific that she would have a better chance of finding someone on the street that could speak a lost dialect of English than one that could understand her, and a person that is so far removed from everyday life that in the unfortunate event she encountered a layperson she would struggle to find anything in common to speak of. While the degree to which these preconceptions are true can be debated, whether they would like it or not the scientists of today are being forced out of the perceived comfort zones of their labs and into the fray of the general public.

The documentary entitled “Silence of the labs” by The Fifth Estate (CBC, 2014) was a wake up call to those who were not closely following Canadian news over the past few years. For those that were, it was an affirmation of what many of us have been thinking all along, that the Harper government has an agenda that is being hampered by science and, as a result, funding is being drastically cut and the capacity for scientists to convey their findings to the public is being stripped. While some targeted research like the Experimental Lakes Area might have fuelled support for industry regulation (and if one waded through the details of the omnibus bills passed last year they would see de-regulation as a common theme), The Fifth Estate describes an anthropological project in northern Canada that was uncovering an inconvenient history for a nation whose government is bent on exploiting the resources of a disputed territory, research that was making global headlines and has since been shut down.

Perhaps one contributing factor for this authoritarian-like control over public research is explained by Alister Scott (2007) when she describes a change that has been occurring in recent decades. She argues that publicly-funded research before the 1990s was more narrowly focussed on generating wealth and making direct improvements in the quality of life, whereas modern research has an obligation to serve society more broadly by finding solutions for often-complicated problems that can span disciplines. It might be understandable, then, why this government is no longer supporting scientists for they are becoming too focussed on addressing relevant issues that society actually cares about but that many in government would rather ignore. 

As Gerry Reed said, “we have a long way to go, and a short time to get there (Orr, 2010)”, which may explain why some scientists are now feeling the urgency to voice their opinions on purported muzzling of government scientists. A recent rally in Ottawa raising awareness of this issue (supposedly organized and attended by scientists) was a novel expression of the frustration that surely many scientists feel since, at its core, science is objective and thus free of politics. One could surmise that some of the reluctance scientists might have towards speaking out publicly on the issue has to do with the hidden curriculum of their respective institutions (Mossop et al. (2013) describe this concept nicely). Specifically, I wonder if some researchers hesitate to engage in political affairs out of concern for what others from their affiliated institutions might say or think. While an institution may not explicitly state that scientists are not to speak publicly on the issue of muzzling, the fact that nobody is could be discouraging the very act. Of course, the flip side of this is that once some scientists have spoken publicly on the issue (and have subsequently managed to retain their jobs), then the hidden curriculum will begin teaching this as an acceptable practice.

While some dramatically warn us of an impending “nightmare” that scientists are perceived to be predicting (Jamail, 2013), many want science to be free to objectively explore the important issues of today, irrespective of political agendas. Misconstrued information and lies are running amok on the internet, exploiting the vacuum that grows stronger with every silenced researcher. In an environment that would rather them study oil extraction technology than socioecological impacts of oil spills, it is no wonder then why these elusive creatures are beginning to crawl out of their dens and into the the public eye. Science has been under attack since its conception by those who feel threatened by it, and there is little doubt that the scientists of today will sit idle while the powers at be assure us that the earth is flat.

Literature Cited

Canadian Broadcast Corporation. “Silence of the Labs”. Aired January 10, 2014. Retrieved on January 22, 2014 from http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/2013-2014/the-silence-of-the-labs

Jamail, D. The Coming ‘Instant Planetary Emergency’: How will climate change affect the future of the planet? Scientists predict it will be nothing short of a nightmare. December 17, 2013. Retrieved on January 22, 2014 from http://www.thenation.com/article/177614/coming-instant-planetary-emergency

Mossop, L., Dennick, R., Hammond, R. & Robbe, I. 2013. Analysing the hidden curriculum: use of a cultural web. Medical Education, 47; 134-143.

Orr, D. “This I Believe – David Orr.” Posted January 26, 2010. Retrieved on January 22, 2014 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6z-Ln0vc20

Scott, A. 2007. Peer review and the relevance of science. Futures, 39; 827-845.

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