May 24, 2015

Dan Lett


War on science seems a reality

Tories are playing a dangerous game

The posted qualifications and starting salary for the top job at the National Microbiology Laboratory would allow it to be filled by nearly any senior bureaucrat.


The posted qualifications and starting salary for the top job at the National Microbiology Laboratory would allow it to be filled by nearly any senior bureaucrat.

The federal Conservative government spends a lot of time these days denying it is waging a war on science and scientists in Canada. If that's true, one has to wonder why so much of what it does seems to be either an insult or an injury to the nation's top scientific minds.

Case in point: The Canadian Press reported Dr. Frank Plummer has left his post as scientific director of the Public Health Agency of Canada and director of the Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Laboratory (NML).

One of the world's most accomplished HIV-AIDS researchers, Plummer's departure after 13 years is a blow to both the lab and to Winnipeg, which has fought valiantly to create and maintain a centre of excellence in infectious diseases.

In this age of pandemic infections and drug-resistant bugs, creating a leadership gap at the public health agency... is a pretty risky thing to do

Just as worrisome for scientists is the very real possibility Ottawa may replace Plummer with a less qualified and thus less expensive person: possibly even someone who does not have a medical degree.

The Canadian Press noted Plummer's position was advertised innocuously on a federal government jobs site in late April at a starting salary and with qualifications that would allow it to be filled by almost any senior bureaucrat with a modicum of experience in the health-care sector. Applications for the job close May 14, a window of opportunity many in the science community believe is deliberately designed to exclude top scientists.

Combined with the fact the federal government has also not yet replaced Canada's chief public health officer -- Dr. David Butler-Jones -- nearly a year after he left, critics believe this is clear evidence the Tory government is trying to gut and muzzle the Public Health Agency and the laboratory.

It's not hard to see why top scientists would leap to this conclusion. The Conservatives have delivered significant layoffs of federal scientists and severely cut funding to research programs such as the Freshwater Institute and the Experimental Lakes Area.

As well, they seem to have a troubling tendency in many areas of policy and lawmaking -- from environmental protection to anti-crime measures and the elimination of the long-form census -- to dismiss and devalue empirical evidence.

However, if the casual approach to filling Plummer's enormous shoes at the NML is another link in the Tories' anti-science continuum, this time they are playing a very dangerous game.

In this age of pandemic infections and drug-resistant bugs, creating a leadership gap at the public health agency and arguably the nation's most important research facility is a pretty risky thing to do. It's like scrambling a fire truck but not putting anyone in the driver's seat.

The work of the NML is, in every way, an emergency service and not just for people in Canada. When a new strain of SARS or influenza strikes, the NML is one of a handful of facilities around the world that form the front line of containment, identification and, with a bit of luck, treatment.

Plummer's departure certainly does not bode well for plans he devised to expand the existing laboratory to allow for more research and front-line disease investigation.

You have to go way back to 2006, when the then-Liberal government unveiled national support for a $150-million plan to add more laboratory space and an office tower to house administrative staff. Back then, Plummer said the space was desperately needed for the NML to continue fulfilling its mandate. One can assume the space is no less needed today.

And let's remember as well that Plummer was no garden-variety bureaucrat. He oversaw a research budget of more than $56 million annually. His work in Africa on HIV-AIDS continued to earn international acclaim and awards while attracting tens of millions of dollars of international research grants.

That doesn't sound like a job that could be filled simply by posting an opening and salary expectations on a website. A spokeswoman for federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose said it is far too early to judge the efforts being made to fill Plummer's jobs. As for a leadership gap, the spokeswoman said the agency and the lab continue to feature top scientists able to continue the work Plummer oversaw with no diminution in quality.

Perhaps, but this is not a government that will get, or deserves, much benefit of the doubt when it comes to scientific policy.

Canada's top scientists believe their work is regularly being demeaned, interrupted and underfunded by the current federal government. A good way to reinforce that opinion is to allow possibly the most important scientific job in Canada to become empty and then strongly imply you may not even consider a scientist when you finally get around to hiring a replacement.

With a strategy like that, soon we'll all be able to drop the word "perceived" from in front of "war on science."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 1, 2014 A4

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