Going public the next frontier for scientists
American Association for the Advancement of Science's leading thinkers in Vancouver to consider how best to convert research to action
Climate change scientist Andrew Weaver has paid a price for bringing his research to the public.
His University of Victoria office contains a Wall of Hate, filled with the "vitriolic diatribes" of people who can-not accept the overwhelming conclusion of the scientific community that burning fossil fuels is responsible for global warming. One man even stood in front of UVic with a placard calling Weaver a "practising liar" over concerns the professor was interfering with the natural course of religion.
"He thinks that by talking about climate science people might change their behaviour, and ... you might prevent the Rapture from occurring, and that would be against God's will," Weaver said.
He adds that whether you are researching the mating habits of an insect or something more contentious - "climate physics, environmental monitoring, genetically modified foods, or even evolution" - there is one constant.
That is the importance of having people see your research.
"Scientists have a duty and responsibility to convey the outcomes of their research to those who ultimately fund it, which is the public."
Thousands of scientists gathering this week at the Vancouver Convention Centre for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science know full well that doing the research is only the first step.
Getting your results accepted as public policy can be a much greater challenge.
Dr. Julio Montaner is director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/ AIDS, chair of AIDS research and head of the division of AIDS in the faculty of medicine at the University of B.C.
He's been fighting a running battle with Ottawa to implement a policy similar to that of the B.C. government to "seek and treat' the most vulnerable HIV victims.
In 2010, B.C. announced a four-year, $48-million pilot program for Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and Prince George to seek and treat vulnerable populations who are either undiagnosed or untreated for HIV.
The program is meant to expand medications among hard-to-reach populations, including sex-trade workers, injection drug users and men who have sex with men, while serving to reduce the virus's spread.
Said Montaner: "Six years ago we went to the federal government with a strategy that was exactly this, where we could stop HIV in the rest of the country. B.C. adopted it; we have had a 65-per-cent decrease in HIV new infections."
He said Ottawa's failure to follow suit "constitutes criminal negligence because to allow infections to persist in this country in vulnerable populations. ..."
He added: "You can only understand that if because somehow those people don't matter to you. And that, in the Canadian context, is not acceptable."
In an interview, Montaner said that while the scientific community has been "extremely good and effective at building up the evidence, the scientific database, testing the hypotheses, we have often ... failed to be able to trans-late that to the next level, which is the actual implementation."
Scientists are discouraged from get-ting too political in their quest to have their work recognized.
"We're almost at the point where we're telling scientists it is actually inappropriate to mess around with politics or with lobbying or with activism," Montaner said. "I come from a school of thought whereby scientific breakthroughs that are not applied, if you don't transform your knowledge into action, you're wasting your time."
Weaver said the role of science is not to prescribe policy outcomes but to inform policy discussions.
As an example, he said, scientists have shown that a $782-million secondary-treatment plant upgrade is unnecessary for Victoria sewage due to the ocean's strong flushing action. However, issues such as tourism and the desire to take advantage of provincial-federal cost sharing mean that the project is going ahead anyway.
"It's a fantastic microcosm of the role of science in public discourse," he said.
Weaver said scientists get upset when their work is manipulated to support a purely ideological agenda, something he accuses the federal government of doing on the issue of climate change.
Canada has agreed to the 2009 Copenhagen Accord's plan to keep warming below two degrees Celsius by 2100, a level that Environment Canada scientists say should be reduced to zero to limit sea-level rise and harm to species.
"That's not a science-based number," confirmed Weaver, a lead author with the International Panel on Climate Change. "At the federal level with climate change, it's an example of ideology ignoring science."
Some scientists are unwilling to go public with controversial research for fear of jeopardizing future funding, especially if they are young scientists not yet well established.
"Absolutely, there is no question about that," Weaver said. "We have an unusual kind of political situation - not at the provincial level, which has always been very supportive of science, whether it be NDP or Liberal - but at the federal level; it's very bizarre.
"It's almost as if, if you have science that is not supportive of the message, it needs to be suppressed."
While some colleagues are more comfortable with quietly doing their science and avoiding the public and press, Weaver argues that is no longer acceptable.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science will attract an estimated 8,000 attendees - scientists, the public, journalists and media relations specialists from more than 50 nations - to the Vancouver Convention Centre for their annual meeting.
It is the first time the annual meeting has been held outside the U.S. since 1981, when it was in Toronto.
Topics to be addressed include climate and environment, health, food, education, communication, the universe, culture, energy and development, all under the conference theme, "Using the power of electronic communications and information resources to tackle the complex problems of the 21st century on a global scale through international, multidisciplinary efforts."