Cuts and Shutdowns Are Risking the United States’ Scientific Reputation

New Scientist
Stories from New Scientist.
April 20 2014 7:23 AM

Cuts and Shutdowns Are Hurting Science

The United States and Canada are risking their reputations as scientific leaders.

Empty lab
Shutting down scientific discourse and suppressing scientists' freedom of speech is never a good idea.

Photo courtesy Joseph Rubino/BNL/NSF

On Oct. 1 last year, the U.S. federal government shut its doors after Congress failed to pass a budget. For 16 days, around 800,000 government employees twiddled their thumbs. Many of them were scientists.

The shutdown was the culmination of months of turmoil, which started in March when politicians failed to agree on a deficit reduction plan, triggering public spending cuts totaling $85 billion. Most federal science programs were slashed.

In the latest issue of Index on Censorship, the international freedom of expression magazine, Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists discusses the impact on the scientific community. Eleven days into the shutdown, the UCS asked 20,000 of its members how it had affected their work. Scientists at all levels of seniority responded with stories of frustration and obstruction.

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From these responses, Goldman argues that the double whammy of cuts and shutdown had a major effect on scientists' right to free speech.

Researchers reported all kinds of problems: once-in-a-lifetime trips or funding opportunities being missed, laptops being confiscated, access to laboratories and email being blocked, vital data sources being cut off, and peer review and journal publication being delayed.

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the UCS's Center for Science and Democracy, described the shutdown as "a huge, unplanned experiment in what happens when we give up on science for two weeks."

To many people, the outcome of that experiment may appear rather undramatic. After all, the shutdown only lasted 16 days, and then presumably everything went back to normal.

But the survey also revealed wider concerns over the current and future direction of U.S. science, specifically about restrictions on freedom of expression.

After the cuts in March, many scientists were suddenly unable to travel to conferences, even ones they were due to deliver keynote speeches at. This restricted their opportunities to exchange ideas and find out about others' work—both important parts of scientific free speech.

The shutdown only made matters worse. Scientific freedom of expression also includes the right to publish research and contribute to discussions. Both were severely compromised. Another round of cuts is due this year.

Openness is, of course, vital to science. Through the ages scientists have worked to create institutions where they can have free debates and discussions to help them finesse their ideas or develop new ones.

Over the past century, some of the world's greatest minds have made huge sacrifices, leaving their home nations for places where they could work in a more open environment. The United States has always been at, or close to, the top of the list of places with such a research environment.

Another favored destination is Canada. But there, too, scientists are worrying about free speech. They complain that government procedures and red tape are silencing them or severely restricting their freedom to report on their research.

The cause of their concern is an official communications policy that came into force in 2006 and was updated in 2012. Federal scientists complain that the policy prevents them from speaking to the media unless they have the consent of press officers, leading to delays or vetoes on communications with the public.

In 2012, the presidents of six organizations representing government scientists and journalists wrote to Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper. They urged his government to introduce a policy of "transparent and timely communication," which would allow scientists to speak to the media without going through a press officer. This was followed by a high profile mock funeral, held in Ottawa, for the "death of scientific evidence."

Not much has improved. Science writer Mark Frary reports in Index on Censorship on a recent survey of 4,000 Canadian scientists. Only 14 percent said they felt they would be able to share a concern about public health and safety or a threat to the environment without fear of retaliation or censure from their department or agency.

Shutting down scientific discourse and suppressing scientists' freedom of speech is never a good idea. Democratic societies thrive on good scientific advice, and scientists are often the whistle-blowers when trouble is brewing. History is littered with deaths and disasters that could have been avoided if evidence had not been ignored or suppressed, including the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease), the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine controversy, and the delay in proving the link between smoking and lung cancer.

Governments also do themselves no favors by forcing scientists to stay silent when asked by the public or media for information. In enforcing silence, they undermine themselves and the reputation of their nation.

Across the planet, governments implementing spending cuts may believe budgets for conferences and other forms of scientific communication are easy targets. Most people won't be too bothered about researchers being unable to present at conferences, losing a few data points, or having to publish their paper next year rather than this. It doesn't provoke public anger in the way that closing a hospital ward or a school would.

But in going down this route, the United States and Canada are risking something important; their reputations as scientific leaders, and leaders in scientific openness.

One U.S. scientist responded to the UCS by saying he was seriously considering moving to a European country where support for science was more stable. For a nation once seen as a beacon of scientific freedom, that is a sorry state of affairs.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.

Rachael Jolley is the editor of the Index on Censorship magazine, based in London.

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