Katie Gibbs: Canada's War on Science is Raising a New Generation of Science Advocates

Katie Gibbs. DeSmog Canada.

There has been a lot of discussion around Canada’s “War on Science” over the last two years, prompted by a major gathering of scientists in Ottawa during the summer of 2012 who announced the “Death of Evidence” in the country. The scientists marched in response to the infamous Budget Bill C-38 that killed funding for numerous federal science positions and research labs coast to coast. The rally’s lead organizer, scientist Katie Gibbs, says the Death of Evidence protest made way for a whole new breed of young Canadian scientists who are eager to stand up and defend their laboratories. It’s about more than just science, says Gibbs, it’s really all about democracy.

Katie Gibbs was known around the lab as the graduate student who cared deeply about the implications of her science. “While I was doing my PhD, I was kind of the rabble-rouser on the floor. You know, I always had volunteers coming to the lab to pick up posters, or storing protest signs under my desk, that sort of thing,” she told DeSmog Canada.

Most of the professors she worked with didn’t participate in any kind of advocacy, she said. “My supervisor, in particular, he wouldn’t even write a letter to the editor.”

In the summer of 2012, however, it wasn’t Gibbs pushing for the Death of Evidence rally, the event that forced Canada’s science crisis into the public eye. Instead a group of professors at the University of Ottawa began organizing a public event and turned to Gibbs when they realized they needed someone brave to be the face of the march.

What was interesting was that it was a group of professors that started thinking around the rally. My supervisor poked his head into my office one day and said a bunch of professors were meeting to talk about doing something in response to the Omnibus Budget Bill. He said, ‘does anybody want to come,’ and I was like ‘hells yeah!’” Gibbs said, adding she became lead organizer after that meeting.

Gibbs says her professors’ involvement was an indication of how concerned the traditional scientific community was with the changes that were being made through new legislation under the Harper government.

Generally scientists shy away from any form of advocacy, or even perceived advocacy, Gibbs explained. But given the current crisis of science in Canada that is changing with younger students, she said.

The younger generation of scientists doesn’t seem to have the same hang ups around science advocacy that the older generation of scientists does.”

In order to channel the momentum of the scientific community after the 2012 rally, Gibbs launched Evidence for Democracy (E4D), an advocacy group dedicated to keeping science linked to decision-making in the country.

Part of the work of Evidence for Democracy consists in creating a distinction between advocating for policy and advocating for science itself, Gibbs explained.

Normally in science when we talk about science advocacy we’re talking about: you do some research that shows A would be a good policy versus B, so you become an advocate for A and try to actually get that policy put in place.

Whereas what we’re advocating for is one step before that, in that we’re just advocating for science and for decisions to be made based on science. So it’s kind of less political or less polarizing than even traditional advocacy.”

For Gibbs, there is still some resistance to the very idea of science advocacy within the scientific community, but supporters are increasingly convinced of its necessity.

I still feel scientists are hesitant but my argument is ‘if you’re not willing to advocate for the crucial role of science in public policy decisions then who is going to do that?’ That really has to come down to scientists,” she said.

The job of convincing the younger generation of scientists to get involved, however, has been much easier, Gibbs said. 

Katie Gibbs speaking at the Stand Up for Science rally in Ottawa. Photo by Kevin O'Donnell. 

All the graduate scientists I worked with, they absolutely see the need for scientists to engage in that way and they have such a strong desire for their science to be relevant and for it to get out in the public space,” she said.

Even for us [E4D] we have a ton of volunteers, most of them graduate students and it’s because we offer most of them the chance to work on policy outreach. They wouldn’t really get the opportunity to work on those kinds of issues in their traditional academic experience.”

Gibbs said younger scientists are choosing to study in the sciences because they are passionate about the outcomes of the science, rather than merely curious or passionate about the process. While more traditional scientists consider themselves separate from the policy outcomes of their research, younger scientists see themselves as a part of the larger complex of society, politics and policy.

I know that was my case as well,” Gibbs said. “I was only interested in doing policy-relevant science. I enjoyed doing the science but my main passion was that it be used, rather than doing it just for the sake of doing it.”

As she sees it, this way of viewing science is politically “empowering.”

I see evidence as really being the only way to hold governments accountable for their decisions,” Gibbs said. “Unless we actually know what information they are using to make decisions, we have no way of judging the quality of the decision.”

When it comes to the relationship between science and democracy, Gibbs said, it all comes down to evidence-based decision-making and accountability.

I often say…that facts are a check on political power.”

Image Credit: Katie Gibbs by DeSmog Canada.