Public Science for the Public Good

by Margrit Eichler


March 15, 2016

Today, we are starting a new initiative: imagining what public science for the public good might look like.

When Our Right to Know incorporated as an advocacy group in July of 2013 (under the name of Scientists for the Right to Know), we had one goal: make public science an issue in the October 2015 federal election. At that time, it seemed like an impossible dream – but, together with many other groups and individuals, we succeeded in making it enough of an issue that both the Liberals and the NDP developed specific platforms around public science. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that parties have done so. Among other things, we sent a questionnaire to the major parties asking them about their science platform, and you can read their responses on our website here.

After the election, the new government moved quickly to implement some of its promises. The mandatory long-form census was reinstated on their second day in power, the muzzle on the scientists was lifted, and the Minister of National Revenue was charged to stop the harassing audits of charities who took positions that were not in accord with those of the previous government. This issue still requires a lot more action: the audits that were started under the old system have not yet been stopped (and I hope that this statement will soon be outdated!), and the whole area of political activity and charities requires a new legislative and policy approach.

Of course, one of the tasks of Our Right to Know will be to monitor how and when the government will implement its other promises concerning public science, and how it will react to legislative proposals from the opposition and NGOs on other related issues.

However, this is a period of change, and in such periods there is hope for a new vision. We are therefore embarking on a campaign to develop a vision of what public science that is for the public good would actually look like. Once we have such a vision, this will enable us to make concrete policy proposals for making sure that public science will, indeed, serve the public good – or, alternatively, provide the basis for critiquing public science that fails to do so.

We define science very broadly. It includes, beside the natural and engineering sciences, the social sciences, health sciences and humanities. We define as public science all knowledge creation that is partially or fully funded by public money, whether directly (e.g. through grants) or indirectly (e.g. through tax credits or charitable status). It further includes all investigations that claim to be for the public good, regardless of whether they are funded or by whom. It is not only government scientists or researchers and students at universities that engage in such research, but also NGOs, think tanks, groups of citizen scientists, and individual researchers.

We are also, hopefully, at a point in time when the relationship of Canada with its indigenous people will dramatically shift. The report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the federal government’s promise to implement all of its recommendations, requires that we rethink how public science can be improved by finding ways drawing on both “western” science (for lack of a better word) and indigenous ways of knowing.

All science takes place at specific points in time in particular social settings. Each time has its own realities that need to be taken into account. We are unfortunately living at a time where human-originated climate change has started and will continue to occur. It will affect all we do. It is a reality that needs to be taken into account, whenever it is relevant.

Our definition of “public good” is still in flux. It is certainly life-enhancing rather than life-destroying, oriented towards social justice rather than maintaining or increasing social inequalities. It includes “do no harm”, and public access to public science – and a lot more that will emerge as we start our discussion of what a vision of public science for the public good might look like.

As a first step, we will publish a series of blogs on particular aspects of such a vision. This will include reflections on structures that will strengthen government-sponsored public science, examples of citizen science, reflections on the data transparency movement, the conflict of interest movement, the regulatory reform movement, equity perspectives that should underlie research, data collection and analyses that were eliminated from the Statistics Canada roster that need to be reinstated, ways of indigenizing public science, and guaranteeing access to knowledge. The latter would include free access to government-sponsored research reports, and avoiding overpricing of scientific journals and other publications. We have commitments for blogs on all of these topics.

In addition, we hope to draw on positive examples from other countries that have developed methods or structures for public science that advance the public good. There will be other topics that will emerge. If you are interested in contributing a blog, please write to me and propose a topic with a short abstract.

Through the blogs, our understanding of what needs to be included in our view of public science will certainly expand, and our understanding of how science can serve the public good will be deepened. We need to reflect on what research should be done that is not currently done and what structures would facilitate conducting such research. In all instances, we want to reflect on what the role of the federal government should be. Sometimes the answer will be: it needs to do everything, sometimes the answer will be: there is no role for it, and often it will lie in between these to extremes.

Blogs will appear in irregular intervals.

Simultaneously, we will work on building a coalition of groups and individuals that see the development of public science for the public good as part of their work.

Once such a coalition is established, the organizations and people involved can decide on how to bring the issue to the general public.

This is an exciting new phase for Our Right to Know.