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Science, the state and freedom of speech

September 9, 1997: Adam Smith (1776) doubted whether society much benefits from “those who affect to trade for the public good.” Yet today, in the name of the public, governments spend a large proportion of the world’s wealth. Included in this expenditure are hundreds of billions for research and development aimed at promoting economic development. But whether this commitment of public funds to science is of overall benefit to society is as open to question now as it was in Adam Smith’s Britain of 200 years ago.

In his book, The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, Terence Kealey (1996) argues that technological innovation, which is the key to growth in prosperity, originates primarily from within the private sector. Striking support for this thesis is provided by the economic failure of the Soviet Union, where the majority of the world’s scientists and engineers were employed in the service of the state. Beyond such anecdotal evidence, Kealey shows, with statistics for OECD countries, that not only is GDP per capita strongly correlated with percent of GDP spent on civil research and development, but that the percent of GDP spent on civil research and development is inversely related to the proportion of civil research and development funded by government. Thus, government funded research and development appears to reduce overall research and development spending, thereby causing slower economic growth.

That publicly funded science is relatively ineffective in promoting economic development is not surprising. When science is administered by governments there is usually firm bureaucratic control, the better to serve political ends. However, because a key element of bureaucratic control is the management of information, the futility that characterizes much publicly funded science rarely comes to light. However, a recent article in a fisheries science journal (Hutchings et al. 1997) provides a rare insight into the way public resources can be squandered on unproductive science.

Since 1977, most public funding for fisheries science in Canada has been directly managed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). In 1996, the DFO spent 192 million dollars (Canadian) on research, plus 282 million on fisheries operations, such as habitat management, plus a further 750 million or thereabouts for sundry other activities (mostly fisheries related), including inspection services, international liaison, executive direction and the Canadian Coast Guard (Public Accounts of Canada, 1996).

With such large expenditures relative to the value of the resource (Canada’s annual fish harvest has a landed value of about 1.5 billion dollars), one might suppose that Canadian fisheries are in safe hands. However, recent years have witnessed both the collapse and closure of Canada’s east coast cod fishery (once the largest cod fishery in the world, yielding in its best years as much as 800,000 tonnes), and a negotiated settlement between the DFO and an aluminum smelter permitting the diversion of almost 90% of the water from the Nechako river (a tributary of the Fraser) with what are believed to be detrimental consequences for Chinook and Sockeye Salmon (BCUC 1994).

The circumstances underlying these developments are complex. What Hutchings et al. (1997) show, however, is that in exercising its responsibility to manage fisheries and fish habitat, the DFO has sometimes acted in ways that its own scientists believed ill considered. This in itself is not remarkable. Differing opinions on the best way to manage complex and incompletely understood phenomena are to be expected. However, only if differences in informed opinion are openly expressed is it likely that administrative action will reflect the best available information. Furthermore, without the open expression of differences in opinion, progress in science will be impeded and research effort misdirected.

But differences in scientific opinion were, and are, not freely expressed by DFO scientists, who are subject to Media Relations Guidelines. The guidelines state that a scientist is free to provide only “factual” information to the media and only then if their statement “describes or explains programs or policies that have been announced or implemented by the government” (Doubleday et al. 1997). In other words, DFO scientists are prohibited from stating a fact, let alone an opinion, that contradicts policies adopted by government.

Furthermore, the DFO’s Media Relations Guidelines have been vigorously enforced. For example, one (now former) DFO scientist was reprimanded for remarks made in an interview given to the (Toronto) Globe and Mail newspaper in connection with an article he had published in Science magazine (Myers et al. 1995). The reprimand stated: “Your comments, as presented by the media, did not give a balanced perspective on the issue of the status of the cod stocks and were inconsistent with the June 1995 Stock Status Report. [Your] disregard for both departmental policy on communication with the media and the professional opinions of your colleagues warrant the disciplinary action of a written reprimand. In the future, you are expected to respect both the system of primary spokespersons and peer conclusions on matters within your area of expertise” (Hutchings et al. 1997). In particular, the scientist had made comments to the Globe and Mail about the cause of the collapse of Canada’s east coast cod stocks that were said to be inconsistent with the article in Science, which so the DFO officials claimed “takes a quite different view” (Doubleday et al. 1997).

It is instructive to examine the details of this breach of the Media Relations Guidelines. In the Science article it is stated that “reductions in fishing mortality rates... should enable stocks to rebuild,” whereas in the newspaper interview it was stated that “What happened to the fish stocks (i.e., their collapse)... is simply overfishing.” Thus, the statement in the Science article is an inference concerning the future, which follows logically from the statement to the newspaper concerning what happened in the past. True, there could have been a different rationale for the statement in Science, but the article does not provide one. Therefore, one may conclude that the assumption expressed in the statement to the newspaper provided the basis for the inference in Science. As such, it is hardly true to say that the statement to the newspaper “takes quite a different view” to the Science article.

In the Science article it is indicated that recovery of fish stocks with reduced fishing mortality is to be expected “unless environmental or ecosystem-level changes occur that alter the underlying dynamics of the stock,” whereas in the newspaper interview it was stated that the collapse of the stocks “had nothing to do with the environment, nothing to do with seals.” Here also, there is no necessary logical relationship between the statements. However, the statement in Science suggests, as a reading of the entire article confirms, that no environmental or ecosystem-level changes that alter the underlying dynamics of the stock were known to be in operation. Thus the Science article ends with this statement: “We conclude that the effects of overfishing are, at this point, still generally reversible.” The statement in the newspaper that the decline of the stock “had nothing to do with the environment, nothing to do with seals” is, therefore, logically consistent with the statement in Science. That it rules out seals categorically and explicitly, rather than provisionally and abstractly, as a cause of the collapse in cod stocks perhaps explains why the newspaper interview so angered DFO officials, for there appears to have been an effort at the time to divert blame for the collapse of the cod fishery from politicians to seals (Lavigne 1995).

Taken in conjunction with other instances of scientific information management by the DFO documented by Hutchings et al. (1997), Canadians should be concerned. They are required to lay out a billion and a quarter each year for DFO operations (the price of three NASA robot Mars missions), including over 190 million for research, but they are too dumb, apparently, to be allowed to hear a DFO scientist express an informed opinion unless it is in accordance with a pre-approved script and expressed with all due respect for a “system of primary spokespersons.” Lysenko would have appreciated this. But Canadians, especially those in a thousand east coast communities, who, with the collapse of the cod fishery, have lost their traditional source of income, should demand change. Politics serves interests, often without regard for truth; science seeks the truth, without regard for interests. The incompatibility cannot be reconciled. Publicly funded science without free speech, whatever the talent of the participants, will always be more or less a waste of money.

Two solutions are possible. Canada could privatize its fisheries, perhaps by giving tradable shares to existing stake holders; leaving it to the new owners to devise collective means to protect and develop the resource through research or other investments. This would result in a large saving to the taxpayer, and the acquisition by those dependent on the fisheries of a capital asset, which would be theirs to preserve and protect.

However, if the Government of Canada cannot stomach a policy so radical, it should transfer funding for fisheries science to an independent agency. How this agency is constructed will be critical in determining its effectiveness in fostering relevant science of high quality. To ensure that it is effective, the government must be guided in its formation by leaders in the scientific community, not bureaucratic science managers. Publicly financed fisheries management in Canada may not yield a net benefit to society at large. At least, though, it should not, and need not, be an exercise in futility.

Alfred Burdett
Publisher, naturalSCIENCE

References

BCUC. 1994. Kemano completion project review. Report and recommendations to the Lieutenant Governor in council, British Columbia Utilities Commission, Vancouver, B.C.

Doubleday, W.G., D.B. Atkinson and J. Baird. 1997. Comment: Scientific inquiry and fish stock assessment in the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 54:1422-1426.

Hutchings, J.A., C. Walters and R.L. Haedrich. 1997. Is scientific inquiry incompatible with government information control? Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 53:1198-1210.

Kealey, T. 1996. The economic laws of scientific research. MacMillan Press, London/St. Martin’s Press, New York, 382 pages.

Lavigne, D.M. 1995. Seals and fisheries, science and politics. Proc. the 11th Biennial conference on the biology of marine mammals, Orlando Florida, December 14-18 (http://www.imma.org/orlando.html)

Myers, R.A., N.J. Barrowman, J.A. Hutchings and A.A. Rosenberg. 1995. Population dynamics of exploited fish stocks at low populations levels. Science 269:1106-1108.

Smith, A. 1776. The nature and causes of the wealth of nations.


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