Don't forget those who 'commit sociology': Calls for evidence-based policy exclude social scientists

| September 26, 2013
Death of Evidence protest, June 2012. (Photo: Ben Powless)

Stand Up for Science protests took place in 17 cities across Canada last week, including Ottawa, in hopes of bringing attention to the federal government's cuts to research funding and muzzling of scientists.

The protest was orchestrated by Evidence for Democracy, a group that emerged last year after the Death of Evidence protest in June 2012. The Death of Evidence protest simulated a funeral, including a procession line of mourners marching down Wellington Street to Parliament Hill. At both of these protests in Ottawa (Stand Up for Science and Death of Evidence) participants were encouraged to wear their white lab coats to portray the image of the (natural) scientist. The image of the white coat scientist at both of these rallies left me, as a social scientist, searching for a space of belonging within the protest. Despite facing similar challenges in our work, social scientists have been all but left out of this strategy of resistance.

The challenges that the Stand Up for Science protest brought to media attention are two-fold. Since Prime Minister Harper's election in 2006, the Conservative government has cut funding for a variety of federal funding agencies as well as governmental and community research bodies.

Also since the 2006 election, the Conservative government has passed through Parliament an ever-growing list of bills which defy the findings and conclusions of Canadian publicly funded research.

As the government continues to cut funding for public research, the resistance to these bills is diminished and greatly silenced. Furthermore, debates over legislation and policy are also diminished and lack substance. For example, the Parliamentary debate over the Conservative omnibus crime bill in 2011-2012, now the Safe Streets and Communities Act, consisted of opposition members asking the Conservatives for evidence to support the bill, and the Conservative members ignoring or side-stepping these questions. As a result of the diminished debate and opportunities for resistance, Canadian legislation and policy are moving further away from the implications and conclusions of peer-reviewed research.

Legislation and policy based on peer-reviewed evidence is a necessary part of democracy, argued Evidence for Democracy Board member Dr. Katie Gibbs during the Stand Up for Science protest. Dr. Gibbs also argued that good science keeps us healthy and safe. Without evidence-based legislation and policy, our government is not addressing the problems we are facing every day in our communities. We need publicly funded scientific research to give us the tools to engage with our democracy and to have an informed debate on how to produce healthy and safe individuals and communities.

Social science knowledge brings an important perspective to a democratic debate on how to keep ourselves and our communities healthy and safe. Yet none of the speakers at the Stand Up for Science rally were social scientists. As only individuals wearing white lab coats were invited to stand on the steps of Parliament, the voices of social scientists were silenced in this important space of resistance.

Similarly, the Conservative government ignores the importance of social science knowledge and research. More than a disinterest, the Conservative government explicitly rejects sociological or criminological examinations of how to produce healthy and safe communities.

Instead, the Conservative government insists on its "law and order agenda" which contradicts peer-reviewed evidence on how address the health and safety problems we are already facing in our communities, including research funded by the Department of Justice. For example, Thomas Gabor's 2002 report "Mandatory Minimum Penalties: Their Effects on Crime, Sentencing Disparities, and Justice System Expenditure."

Social science knowledge is a barrier to Harper's Conservative government's method of governing. Instead of engaging with it, Prime Minister Harper mocks it -- as seen in his glib comment earlier this year that "this is not the time to commit sociology."  If we could expand the message from the Stand Up for Science protest to include social scientists, we would see that now is the time more than ever for us to "commit sociology."


Lisa Wright is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University. 

Photo: Ben Powless 



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