In Blog

Inquiry as Protest

By Max Liboiron

April 13, 2015

Inquiry as Protest: Censored Federal Science and the Write2Know Project

I study plastic pollution. Plastics have been found in every ocean in the world. The chemicals that leach from plastics, most of which are endocrine disruptors like bisphenol A (BPA) that mimic hormones, have been found in nearly every Canadian tested.

These two aspects of plastic pollution come together when marine plastics absorb and then release chemicals when they are ingested by marine life. The chemicals accumulate in the animal and concentrate their way up the food chain. Marine mammals such as polar bears and killer whales at the top of these food chains are some of the most contaminated living beings on earth. The humans that eat these animals, usually Indigenous populations in the far north, can carry such high contaminant loads that they can be technically classified as toxic waste when they die, as journalists such as Marla Cone have pointed out. Plastics are likely one of the main vectors that carry these contaminants into human and animal bodies, but the research on these pathways is just beginning.

plastic max

So when I moved back to Canada after 15 years in the United States, I looked for research on marine contamination in my new home in Newfoundland where fish and even marine mammals remain a major part of people’s identities and diets. Peter Ross is the Canadian scientist at the forefront of studying contaminants in marine mammals. I needed to talk to him. Except he had been fired during the complete elimination of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s entire contaminants research program in 2013. There is now not a single federal scientist monitoring capacity for pollution in our three oceans, including the impacts on food stocks that are central to Newfoundlanders, over 300,000 Canadian Aboriginal peoples, and marine wildlife.

The closure of the DFO’s contaminants research program was just one of over a hundred cancelled research programs, most of which monitored environmental harm. Peter Ross is just one of thousands of recently fired scientists conducting essential research. Additionally, the government has shuttered libraries and destroyed data archives, reaching back into the past to eliminate research. Remaining federal scientists face significant constraints that impact their ability to speak directly to the media, the public, policymakers, and even other researchers like me about the results of their work. While research on environmental monitoring is being cut, research on resource extraction and development is growing, launching environmental problems into the future. It’s like an exploding time machine has taken over science in Canada.

I had heard things were bad here in Canada, but this was criminal. It was unjust. It is hamstringing democracy and informed policy making, never mind Canada’s ability to have an informed public. And it was the basis for the Write2Know campaign I began with my collaborator Dr. Natasha Myers and the Politics of Evidence working group. Write2Know is a protest fueled by inquiry. It’s a letter writing campaign that gives you the opportunity to ask federal scientists and ministers questions that matter to you and your community. We’ve collaboratively drafted eight letters with members of the public on topics ranging from climate change to missing and murdered Indigenous women. They are ready for your signature. You can also write your own letter, and we’ve been working with several communities to add their concerns to the campaign.

The federal scientists conducting research that can answer the questions in these letters are sent a single hard copy at the end of each quarter with a list of the undersigned, though we aren’t sure if these are getting through. Not surprisingly, we haven’t heard back from any of the scientists we’ve contacted. Federal Ministers and Members of Parliament, on the other hand, are receiving email copies of every single letter sent that falls within their jurisdiction. So far that is just shy of 3,000 letters. As of April 2nd, we have heard back from four of the thirty ministers and MPs we’ve written. You can read their responses here. We’re still waiting on the others.

The next steps in the campaign are to create teaching kits to get these issues into classrooms, as well as to teach the skills necessary to ask questions of our government that are so central to democracy. We will also host a Freedom of Information request drive so we can get the answers to our questions. We continue to work with community and school groups crafting new questions about issues that matter to them so other Canadians and people around the world can sign on in solidarity. This is not just a Canadian issue, since Canada hosts 40 percent of the arctic, 18 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, massive amounts of forest, and, of course, the oil sands. Since most of the science being gutted focuses on environmental monitoring, while research into resource extraction continues and even grows, we are contributing to global environmental problems and flying blind at home.

A very special thank you to our volunteers and supporters, including: Scientists for the Right to Know, Evidence for Democracy, DeSmog Canada, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the Technoscience Research Unit (University of Toronto), the Institute for Science and Technology Studies (York University) and the Waste, Science, Technology and Environment group (WaSTE) (Memorial University of Newfoundland), PIPSC, the union representing federal scientists, and everyone who has signed onto a letter or contributed a question. 

Max Liboiron is an Assistant Professor of sociology and technology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her research focuses on how harmful, invisible, emerging phenomena such as disasters, toxicants, and marine plastics become manifest in science and activism, and how these methods of representation relate to action. Liboiron’s major public projects include managing the Discard Studies Blog, a public forum on waste and pollution; and founding Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), which uses citizen science and community methods to monitor and act on environmental pollution.