Mirjam Guesgen

Freelance Science Writer

I am a freelance science writer currently based in Toronto, Canada, with a particular interest in animal welfare.

I love communicating complex, scientific ideas in an engaging, balanced, thought-out and informative way.

Science advocates still battling to undo effects of science-phobic government

Nearly a hundred people braved frigid weather to stand, sing and raise their signs about undervalued and underfunded scientists - perceived ills perpetuated by the former Harper government that still ripple through to today.

The March for Science, now in its second year, aimed to promote scientific integrity and evidence based decision making in government.

There was a sense from demonstrators that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had made things better by appointing a Chief Science Officer and allocating almost $4 billion in new funding for science over the next five years.

Event hosts, the science advocacy group Evidence for Democracy, asserted in a statement on their website that these changes were brought about through events like the march. “This success for science in Budget 2018 didn’t happen by chance,” said Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, “it happened because the research community pulled together in an unprecedented way over the last year.”

Despite notable changes, many participants still felt it was not enough to undo the intensive funding cuts and muzzling from the former Conservative government.

One sign read “science still in the red”, referring to Canada’s low investment in research funding compared to other countries. Canada currently ranks twenty-first in the OECD in percentage of GDP allocated to research and development at 1.7 percent, behind Australia at 2.1 percent and Israel the leader at 4.3 percent. The Naylor report estimates that an investment of $1.3 billion a year is needed to bring Canada up to global standards.

Further, some scientists among the crowd felt their research was at the whim of cyclic political turnover. One event participant I spoke to expressed his struggle staying motivated to stay in the profession because of it. “It’s [investment in science] basically become a political game of ping pong,” he lamented, “The government needs to find a way to stabilize funding for young researchers so that people stay.”

Lack of incentive to choose or continue in a scientific career was also touted as one of the reasons for a lack of diversity in science, a shortcoming the march also aimed to address.

Social worker Doina Oncel, who spoke at the event today, wants to see more people from underserved communities pursue careers in science. “We need everyone’s perspectives,” she said, “what if the cure for cancer, say, was stuck in someone’s mind that couldn’t afford education?”

Her non-profit organization her VOLUTION relies on government grants to run summer camps  and workshops for underserved groups, as well as multi-year computer science programmes for girls and a yearly conference connecting young people with inspirational leaders in STEM.

She views financial investment in grassroots initiatives such as hers as an investment in Canada in the long run, as it would provide valuable STEM skills, such as inquiry and engaging with technology, to more people including indigenous people and new immigrants. Those skills, she says, are useful in all professions not just science.

Today’s event was a chance to celebrate some of the headway that’s been made to back science financially and make it accessible but the sentiment from many was that there is still work to be done.