Over the last two months both Canadian and British scientists staged mock funerals to protest funding decisions by their respective governments. There are some notable differences between the two protests. Two that attracted my attention relate to the people and institutions involved.
The British protest was focused relatively narrowly, on how one of the granting councils prioritizes research. In the two months since the protest (which took place on the same day as many scientists visited with their members of Parliament) not much has come out of the protest, or the group behind it, Science for the Future.
It’s a little too soon to know how effective the Canadian protest will be, but it is more broadly focused on the increasing difficulty government scientists are having in communicating with the public. I have pushed back on some of the criticism of these moves because I do not think that a government controlling the communications of its employees in their official capacities is necessarily censorship. It’s not the best idea, but I don’t think it’s censorship. While appeals to letting the evidence speak have the potential for stealth advocacy, there is definite value in making the information available.
While I’m not sanguine on the use of funerals, and the associated claims of the ‘death’ of anything, in these matters; I am encouraged by the Canadian protest because I think it represents a benchmark in the growth of its science policy advocacy and analysis capacities. Later this year the 4th Canadian Science Policy Conference takes place in Alberta, and in the time since that event, it seems to this fellow south of the border that the Canadian investment in science policy and advocacy infrastructure is showing benefits. The formation of Bad Science Watch, a consumer protection-oriented advocacy group, is another dividend from that investment.
I also think the Canadian protest – funeral tones aside – is smarter for a more inclusive theme that focuses on something particular to science. Every interest group complains about money, so this change from the status quo is encouraging.
But I don’t have a definitive answer for the title question – would American scientists rent a caisson and casket to march down Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol? The pending ‘fiscal cliff’ in the federal budget could notably impact science funding – the first among equals issue for U.S. science policy. But science advocates in the U.S. have their fiscal pleading strategies and resist most urges to deviate from them. I do not see a mock funeral in our future. But I have been in Washington a long time. There may be a sufficiently motivated researcher somewhere in the U.S. willing to do some organizing. I would welcome this. I don’t know if we need another funeral. The U.S. seems to have a lower threshold for protest dramatics.