OTTAWA - Hundreds of scientists stepped away from their petri dishes on Tuesday to denounce what they say are the Harper government's sweeping cuts to research.
Flanked by supporters, the white-coated scientists marched through downtown Ottawa to Parliament Hill for a mock funeral marking "the death of evidence."
They carried placards that read "No Science, No Evidence, No Truth," and "Save ELA," referring to the experimental lakes area that recently had its funding cut.
A central theme of the rally was the planned closure of the ELA, a research station in Ontario that produces critical data used to combat acid rain and phosphate pollution in lake water. Without government funding, it is slated to close in 2013.
"The experimental lakes area is a world-class, living, outdoor laboratory where scientists have studied how to protect freshwater for decades," said Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians and a former senior adviser on water to the UN General Assembly.
"The Harper government is shaming Canadians in the eyes of the world and killing a major gift to water science at the very moment we are really beginning to understand the depth of the global water crisis."
But the protesters also decried the Conservative government's overall economic agenda, which they say puts the environment at risk for the sake of creating jobs.
The Conservatives make no apologies for wanting to focus scientific research in areas where money and jobs can be made.
Canada has been lagging behind other nations in terms of applied scientific research and putting it to commercial use, said a government official who didn't want to be identified.
"Our government is taking steps to correct that — but not at the expense of basic research," said the official.
Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology, defended the government, saying the Tories have made historic investments in science, technology and research to create jobs and grow the economy.
"This year . . . we enhanced federal government support for leading-edge research including $500 million – over five years – for the Canada Foundation for Innovation," Goodyear said in an emailed statement.
But the protesters said Conservatives policies weaken or abolish scientific institutions, in the name of making it easier to develop natural resources.
The Council of Canadians, which sponsored the rally, said scientific evidence is being destroyed through cuts to critical programs at the National Research Council, Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Katie Gibbs, a PhD student in the biology department at the University of Ottawa, who opened the mock funeral service, said it was "to commemorate the untimely death of evidence in Canada."
"After a long battle with the Harper government, evidence has suffered its final blow."
But Dr. Scott Findlay, associate professor and former director of the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Environment, closed the service on a more positive note.
After inviting a procession of scientists to pay their respects by placing books into a makeshift coffin, Findlay said "evidence is not quite dead, but it is at the very least at death’s door.”
"We can restore evidence, but this will require an effort not only by scientists but by the general public."