Researcher Activism: The Gutting of Discard Science in Canada and the Write2Know Campaign

One of the prepared questions in the Write2Know campaign is about the effect of the oil sands on water quality.

One of the prepared questions in the Write2Know campaign is about the effect of the oil sands on water quality.

There is a new campaign called Write2Know that gives people the opportunity to ask federal scientists and Ministers about the results of the government’s environmental monitoring and scientific research programs. The Canadian government has recently cancelled over a hundred research programs and fired thousands of scientists conducting essential environmental research. It has shuttered libraries and destroyed data archives. The remaining scientists face significant constraints that impact their ability to speak directly to the media, the public, and even other researchers about the results of their work. Journalists reporting on the environmental consequences of industry are regularly denied interviews with federal scientists monitoring the impact of industrial waste, and cannot verify their stories.

Most of the gutted research is about discards: the material externalities of industrial systems. The famous Experimental Lakes Area that brought us most of the cutting edge information on acid rain in the 1970s-90s was defunded. The entire marine mammal contamination section of Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences was dissolved, despite findings that marine mammals are some of the most contaminated animals on the planet, and are a mainstay in traditional northern Aboriginal diets. Much of the cut research was used for policy in countries outside of Canada. Moreover, Canada’s oil sands, forestry management, and arctic environment affect the world outside of the country given their central roles in climate change. This is more than a Canadian issue.

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 4.57.44 PMWhile most of my own research, as well as many researchers who follow Discard Studies, criticizes notions of allowable limits of pollution, “seeing like a state” via science, and bureaucratic notions of harm and health, as a resent returnee to Canada I now see these critiques as a type of luxury. They assume that states are conducting environmental monitoring. Quantitative environmental monitoring is a necessary but  insufficient step in managing–or transforming–an industrial system that produces unprecedented tonnages and toxicities of waste.  Being able to identify the materials in waste, its location, and its effects are the first steps in making decisions about waste. But all three of those abilities have been “gutted” by the Canadian federal government.

It is not surprising then that as a discard studies scholar, I’m one of the organizers behind Write2Know. The campaign is the type of activism that comes from the experiences of researchers. Its call to action is also a call to research. We provide a platform for people to write questions under the assumption that inquiry, accountability, and knowledge are prerequisites to democracy and informed publics. A synopsis of the project, how it works, and its areas of concern is below.

Photo From youthandeldersja.

Canadian scientists protesting new federal changes to how research is funded and communicated. Photo From youthandeldersja.

The familiar refrain that researchers should be impartial and detached flies in the face of this call and other campaigns lead by researchers around Canada. From the 1993 publication “Being a Scientist Means Taking Sides” to the recent story in The Chronical of Higher Education, The Dangerous Silence of Academic Researchers,” there is a growing awareness that people who produce knowledge also have a responsibility to that knowledge– particularly a responsibility that it be communicated to the public if it affects the public. Increasingly, we are also coming to comment on the systems that produce (or cancel), circulate (or cloister), and fund (or de-fund) that knowledge because many of these systems are failing to protect the public good.

I invite you to take a look at the Write2Know campaign, perhaps sign on to a question or, if you are a researcher, as a question that matter to your work, but at the very least consider this genre of activism whose providence, form, and function are about the right to know and the responsibilities of researchers and our funders.


How It Works

Write2Know is a letter writing campaign that gives you the opportunity to ask federal scientists and ministers questions that matter to you. You can choose and edit questions that other Canadians have written, or you can create your own.

The federal scientists who are listed in the questions below will be sent a single letter at the end of Write2Know Week (March 23-27, 2015). That letter will list the names of all the people who selected and signed on to that question. Federal Ministers and Members of Parliament will receive copies of every letter you send.

If you craft your own question, you can send your email directly to both scientists and ministers. You can find instructions for developing your own question here. We ask that you cc us at so we can keep track of all the questions being asked.

By March 27, we aim to send out over 1,000 letters. The Write2Know Project, however, will extend beyond March 27th, allowing people to continue to write letters and ask new questions.

The Questions

What are the impacts of marine plastics on our food chain?

How are the oil sands affecting water quality?

How are development and research initiatives in the Far North addressing the effects of high concentrations of contaminants on Aboriginal communities?

Given recent cuts to Aboriginal health research, how does the government plan to include Aboriginal expertise, opinions, lived realities, values, and traditional practices in public health research?

Where’s the data? What was removed from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries?

What research is the government conducting to address the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls?

Why, in this time of climate change, is the Canadian government promoting increased resource extraction from our forests?

Why is Canada killing wolves to protect threatened caribou herds, when evidence shows that resource extraction from industries like the oil sands has the biggest impact on their survival?

Related Reading:

Emily Chung, “Muzzling of Federal Scientists Widespread, Survey Suggests: 4,000 responded to survey commissioned by PIPSC to gauge political interference in science,” The Globe & Mail, Oct. 21, 2013.

Emily Chung, “Foreign scientists call on Stephen Harper to restore science funding, freedom: Open letter warns about effects of Canadian science policy on international collaboration,” The Globe & Mail, Oct. 20, 2014.

Tim McSorely, “The Big Chill: ‘Scientists Can’t Do the Job they were Hired to Do,’” Desmog Canada, Oct. 23, 2013.

Carol Linnet, “Harper’s Attack on Science: No Science, No Evidence, No Truth, No Democracy,” Academic Matters, May 2013.

A collection of stories on “Stifling Science” by Huffington Post