Researchers: Time to rebuild trust in decision-making

Western Biology PhD student Nico Muñoz was one of the leads on an open letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling on the federal government to reassess its regulatory decision-making processes concerning environmental assessments. More than 1,700 professors, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from across the country have since signed the letter.

Special to Western NewsWestern Biology PhD student Nico Muñoz was one of the leads on an open letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling on the federal government to reassess its regulatory decision-making processes concerning environmental assessments. More than 1,700 professors, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from across the country have since signed the letter.

Hundreds upon hundreds of professors, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from across the country, including dozens at Western, are calling on the federal government to reassess its regulatory decision-making processes concerning environmental assessments. They called on the Trudeau government to “rebuild public trust in robust, open, and fair decision-making.”

Released last week, an open letter expressed concerns with recent processes and decisions on major environmental projects, including the federal reviews of the Pacific NorthWest liquefied natural gas project, Site C Clean Energy Project, Northern Gateway Pipeline and others.

“It is an exciting time to be a scientist in Canada. We celebrated when you restored the long-form census, increased basic research funding, and encouraged federal scientists to speak freely. Your commitment to “a higher bar for openness and transparency,” the expectation for “Canadians to hold (government) accountable,” and to make “government and its information open by default” rang true to emerging standards in the scientific community.

“Yet, we are concerned that current environmental assessments and regulatory decision-making processes lack scientific rigour, with significant consequences for the health and environment of all Canadians.”

“These projects got a lot of the grad student population in B.C. talking,” said Western Biology PhD student Nico Muñoz, part of the team who drafted the letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Muñoz is co-supervised at Simon Fraser University. “From these discussions, we realized the scientific rigour and scientific transparency they were using in these processes were really lacking.

“We know the science exists, but it’s not completely clear if they used it, how they used it and what other factors they considered to make these decisions.”

Muñoz stressed the letter does not have an anti-development agenda.

“We are aware there are a lot of factors at play, a lot of reasons why these projects are important to our society,” he said. “Our concern is the full picture has not been painted when they make these decisions. It’s a matter of being objective and transparent and, if that’s the case, everyone will be better off.”

The letter was also forwarded to six cabinet ministers, including Environment and Climate Change; Transport; Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard; Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development; Natural Resources; and Science.

As the next generation of Canadian scientists, Muñoz says he is professionally and personally affected by such decisions, especially regarding large-scale, long-term projects. Not only might his expertise be required to mitigate problems, but he – and those of his generation – must live with the impacts, including a planet profoundly affected by climate change.

The letter stated, “Canadians invest deeply in our training, and in turn, we take seriously the responsibility of collecting, analyzing, and disseminating scientific information that serves society.”

When scientific evidence cannot be found, that gap can sometimes be interpreted as no risk, Muñoz said. “That’s the kind of things we, as scientists and grad students, can’t get away with saying when we’re trying to publish a paper or defend our thesis,” he said. “The bar should be raised a bit for these huge projects.”

Initially hoping for 1,000 signatures, organizers are closing in on 2,000. Muñoz believes that signals the group is touching on a real concern.

“I hope it signals these are substantive issues. We want to be part of the solution and will help the government get there. The federal government has taken some positive steps and are open to the voice of science – we have a Minister of Science who is a scientist – so there are some great steps,” Muñoz said.

“But some of the big decisions made recently seem as though they were made with a flawed environmental assessment. We are going to be the future of research in Canada and we want to build that future starting now, based on our skill set. The time is now to get better.”