Canadian STS Scholars Work to Stop the “Death of Evidence”

Natasha Myers is an associate professor in anthropology at York University and member of the Politics of Evidence Working Group. Myers and her colleagues are Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars in Canada protesting efforts by the government there to restrict access to and production of scientific evidence critical to environmental research.

Bill C-38, which was passed in 2012, overwrote much of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and is one of the more marked federal changes which has precipitated this “death of evidence” by drastically decreasing the number and quality of environmental assessments required for federal projects. The last few years has also seen the shutdown of countless scientific archives, federal research sites, and libraries. By surrounding them with bureaucratic red tape and official “handlers,” federal scientists have also been discouraged from speaking to the public on their research.

With a background in anthropology and STS, Myers wants to know how best to productively critique the research questions and methods of institutional science while still “standing up for science” as it goes under attack from the Canadian government. On the one hand, Myers and her colleagues want to hold out hope for better modes of scientific engagement, but on the other, they recognize the urgent need to defend the continued existence of science as institution.

Walking this fine line between critique and support is what the Politics of Evidence Working Group is attempting to do. “We hope to inspire universities everywhere to form working groups like this,” Myers explains, by offering one model of what a “civic techno-science” might look like.

Part of the group’s work is through institutional partnerships with organizations such as DeSmog Canada, the Institute for STS, Evidence for Democracy, the Right2Know Network, etc. in order to offer correctives to both social and environmental injustices. The human element is inextricable from the environmental harm being done – Myers reminds us that First Nations people are often the most and most immediately affected by environmental toxicity.

One of the main efforts of the working group is to encourage public inquiry into scientific research and governmental effects on that research. To accomplish this goal, Myers and her colleagues interrogate the question: what forms of research best connect with forms of activism?

Consequently, the group has worked on two publication projects with CanadaWatch and Desmog Canada and has produced non-scholarly publications through workshops with translation/communication facilitators. The group has also initiated the Write2Know Project, a letter-writing campaign meant to both support federal scientists and protest the actions of the ministers. The letter-writing campaign is part of “the first step in a long term project that aims to map ‘imposed ignorance.’”

Although the set of circumstances that has necessitated the birth of the Politics of Evidence Working Group are undeniably tragic, even Myers admits a silver lining. The involvement of STS scholars in this urgent political issue is also an opportunity for the field to examine itself, perhaps incorporating more attention to social justice, and returning to the basic questions: what forms of evidence count? what forms don’t? whose knowledge counts? whose knowledge doesn’t? and how are limits imposed on what we can know?

– Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English