Science Does Not Trump Politics

Kelly Holloway argues that science is political and we would do well to recognize this in debating Canadian science policy.

On January 10, 2014 the Fifth Estate aired an investigative story about Canadian science policy called Silence of the Labs. The report aptly makes the case that the Harper government has siphoned resources away from basic science research (with a cautionary message about human health, climate change and habitat destruction), toward science that can lead to a particular kind of “economic growth.” It fails to mention, however, that this shift in Canadian science policy dates back to the 1980s.

Another problem with the program is that it creates erroneous dichotomies between politics and science, and between policies and facts. This framing is also evident in recent challenges to the direction of Canadian science policy by well-meaning grassroots mobilizations. For example, at a September 2013 rally at Dalhousie University, organised by Evidence for Democracy, NDP Environment Critic and Deputy Leader, Megan Leslie, said that she and Elizabeth May of the Green Party don’t agree on everything, but can certainly agree that: “Science trumps politics.”

In a nutshell, it doesn’t.  Science is political. This is not to suggest that there is no truth in science. There is truth, and there is fiction, but we have to talk a lot to figure out which is which – and this exercise is political.

Devils Island Seacaves, Lake Superior

Devils Island Seacaves, Lake Superior

Let me explain. Scientists live in a political world. Politics (referring very broadly to the way we organize our social life) influences what scientists choose to study, the questions they ask, and how they answer those questions (meaning, the decisions they make about what they observe and what they do with their observations). The world is political; it produces people, and some of those people produce science.  As such, we can’t wrestle the products of science away from the political.

Harper’s attack on certain kinds of science demonstrates how science is political. Consider, for instance, this government’s decision to shut down the Great Lakes project, which focused on the protection, restoration and maintenance of the region’s natural systems while safeguarding the lakes from threats such as aquatic invasive species. The question of how to protect and safeguard the Great Lakes is political, which explains, in part, why the government might want to shut down this research.

The Harper government can (rightly) claim that it is funding research that produces knowledge and facts. The policies of this government are not anti-science; rather, they support a particular kind of science – one that serves a broader political agenda promoting commercially oriented research. That agenda was secured in Canada long before Harper, with programs like the Ontario Centres of Excellence and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. A challenge to this agenda should not focus on determining what is science and what is ideology, but rather, on the ideas that inform and direct science. Were we to make these ideas explicit, discuss and debate them, we could have a more democratic foundation for the direction of Canadian science policy.

To re-direct Canadian science policy we need to unpack Harper’s political agenda. His agenda is to promote the commercialization of science in pursuit of economic growth that he claims will create prosperity for all. But in practice his program for economic growth means accumulation of wealth for those who are already doing well. With the commercialization of research corporations have considerable power to decide what kind of knowledge is or is not important. The aim of corporations is to generate profit and so knowledge that supports this aim is important knowledge. This type of knowledge may or may not create economic growth.

If we want to understand the underlying causes of breast cancer, erratic weather patterns, health outcomes from consuming GMO foods, we need to have a broad discussion about what kind of science policy can help answer these questions. That does not mean that all science needs to be directed toward these aims. Sometimes the most influential science is curiosity driven with no specific application at the outset. But even curiosity emerges from what scientists experience in ‘the world.’

The characterization of scientists as objective observers may offer them valuable expert status, but this status may also distance scientists from the public — make them un-relatable and make their science seem unintelligible. If the work of scientists is perceived as far removed from the social and political questions that are relevant to people’s lives, it will be difficult to develop public support for their research priorities.

Recognizing the politics of science is an important step for this mobilization – one that demonstrates to Harper, but also to the general public, that science is political. If we want to create alternatives to commercially-oriented research, science must be political.

Kelly Holloway is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Dalhousie University studying the commercialization of research. She holds a PhD in Sociology from York University. @kellyjholloway

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