Seen and Heard: ‘Silence of the Labs’ Screening

Jordann Thirgood

In January, the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto hosted a public screening of “Silence of the Labs” in collaboration with Evidence for Democracy (E4D), a non-partisan organization that advocates for transparency and evidence-based decision-making in public policy. Since then, E4D has continued to screen the film across the country in an effort to inform the public on what has become a pressing policy issue: the phenomenon of disappearing data.

The CBC Fifth Estate documentary walks audiences through a series of case studies in an attempt to convey what have been radical changes in public funding for scientific research over the past few years. Host Linden MacIntyre claims that over 2,000 scientists have been dismissed from the federal government since 2006, and that hundreds of programs and research facilities have witnessed such drastic decreases in funding that they have been forced to shut down operations altogether.

“Silence of the Labs” successfully pulls at heartstrings with its very personal accounts from four victims of these cuts, beginning with Dr. Pat Sutherland. Garnering international media attention for her archeological research on Baffin Island in 2012, Dr. Sutherland had discovered evidence of Norse explorers in the arctic (working for her employer at the time, the Museum of Civilization). When her research failed to jive with the rebranded Museum of Canadian History, Dr. Sutherland was dismissed, her project shut down, and access to the material of her life’s work denied.

Similarly, Canada’s only marine toxicologist Dr. Peter Ross lost his job along with 55 of his colleagues in 2012 when the Department of Fisheries closed its contaminants program. Another of the film’s identified victims, David Schindler, had his findings on Alberta’s oils sands pollutants in the Athabasca watershed published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and was consequently attacked and criticized by both provincial and federal governments. Following drastic cuts to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in 2012, Dr. Tom Duck and his team were also forced to halt what was world-renowned research on climate change and ozone depletion. While PEARL is up and running again after a renewed $5 million grant (delivered in 2013), significant and unrecoverable gaps now exist in a dataset that relies on long-term trend development.

These victims of federal government funding cuts have emerged as prominent voices in the support of evidence-based policy-making in Canada. And they are not alone: according to a 2013 survey, hundreds of federal scientists have come forward claiming that they had been prohibited from responding to the media and asked to exclude their findings from government documents. Demonstrations around the country have been hard to ignore, with protestors describing the recent funding cuts as a method of “muzzling” scientists in the name of economic and commercial interests.

The topic has also emerged as the focus of a very heated discourse against the reigning Conservative government, as many perceive an onset of a “climate of fear” developing in the science community. There is general consensus among these advocates that public policy – especially that concerning public health and the environment – should be developed from hard evidence regardless of political ideology and party preferences.

A panel discussion featuring prominent members of the science community – including Dan Weaver from E4D’s Board of Directors and several of U of T’s very own brilliant minds, such as Dr. Steve Easterbrook, Dr. Richard Peltier, and Dr. Margrit Eichler – followed the recent on-campus screening. Despite the wide array of backgrounds among the panelists, there was one thing that all seemed to agree on: that funding cuts to scientific research fundamentally highlight the trend of “disappearing data” available to policy makers. This may sound like old news, with Statistics Canada having been forced to terminate the mandatory long-form census in 2010, but the detrimental impacts of recent cuts are becoming more and more obvious as the public service scrambles to find up-to-date and detailed information on the population and environment of their own country.

What was particularly concerning about this event, however, was the lack of representation from the public policy community itself. Students, professors, researchers and advocates from all scientific disciplines showed up to voice concerns and generate discussion. Those who shared their personal experiences all agreed that the topic of “disappearing data” was urgent and should be pushed to the front of the policy agenda, if only for the hard evidence that policy-makers need to develop effective policies and programs. The most pressing issues that our country will face in the upcoming decades rely entirely on adequate data collection — such as climate change, demographic shifts, and labour market trends.

Such limited involvement from the policy community is distressing, and conveys that the issue may not in fact be considered a priority topic – thereby making it difficult to maintain a relevant discussion for change. If the issue is truly one of partisan politics, as many have argued, Canada could see this trend shift after the upcoming election. If not, deeper cultural and attitudinal changes may be required to sustain a public service that is equipped with sufficient data to support future generations of Canadians.

Jordann Thirgood is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Development Studies with a specialization in Political Economy and Administrative Change from the University of Guelph. Her areas of interest include environmental and social policy, as well as corporate responsibility.