Harper manipulating the scientific process
The fate of Vancouver's medically supervised safer injecting facility, known as Insite, hangs in the balance as three B.C. Court of Appeal justices weigh arguments by the Harper government aimed at overturning an earlier ruling that provided the program a brief respite from the Tories' efforts to close it.
In that ruling, Justice Ian Pitfield weighed the science and concluded: "I cannot agree with the submission that an addict must feed his addiction in an unsafe environment when a safe environment that may lead to rehabilitation is the alternative."
As someone involved in the evaluation of Insite, I have seen first-hand how the Conservatives continue to score major political points as a result of their determination to close the program.
Early concerns about the Conservative party's policies under Stephen Harper emerged in the areas of reproductive technology and stem cell research. More recently, cuts to basic research in the Tories' stimulus budget as well as Conservative Science Minister Gary Goodyear's unscientific comments on "creationism" versus evolution prompted an open letter to Harper by more than 2,000 top Canadian scientists decrying "huge steps backward for Canadian science" under the Conservatives.
With the closure of the office of the National Science Advisor – the independent and arm's-length position created to provide non-partisan recommendations to the federal government on scientific matters – even the prestigious scientific journal Nature recently had harsh criticism for the Harper government. Topping the list is the Tories' handling of Insite, which constitutes this government's most blatant contempt for science.
Among the most egregious examples of the Tories' manipulation on this file are their apparent efforts to suppress and cloud research, and their unwillingness to accept scientific findings. When initially faced with the decision whether or not to allow Insite to continue to operate legally, then health minister Tony Clement stated that "more research is necessary."
Ironically, as part of this announcement he declared a moratorium on injection site research trials and intervened to halt funding to an Insite research grant, which had already been externally peer-reviewed and recommended for funding by the Public Health Agency of Canada. Rather than promoting "more research," his interference with the recommendations coming from this transparent peer-review process was in clear violation of international scientific standards.
In fact, Insite is undoubtedly the most highly studied health clinic in Canadian history with almost three dozen studies now published describing the program's positive impacts. These are not consultants' reports but rather rigorous peer-reviewed studies published in the most prestigious medical periodicals, including The New England Journal of Medicine.
Ironically, the Conservatives have responded to this volume of research by clouding the issue and stating that the research has actually "raised questions" and that there is a "growing academic debate." These statements are highly disingenuous. The published research has answered many questions, not raised them. Furthermore, rather than academic debate, a near unanimous academic consensus has emerged in the mainstream scientific community. For instance, more than 130 prominent Canadian scientists recently published an open letter to Harper charging that his conduct surrounding Insite was putting ideology before the protection of public health.
In the United States, when the Bush administration was faced with pesky scientists concerned about various areas of public health, such as climate change, the Republicans appointed "expert" committees and embraced "scientific" information produced by right-wing think-tanks.
In 2006, the Harper government took a page from the Republican handbook when it selected an "expert advisory committee," giving the members no more than six months to solicit and conclude definitive research on the impact of Insite. The government also stipulated that researchers conduct this work in secrecy and agree not to present their research at scientific meetings or in medical journals until six months after the committee's final report.
Any scientist would agree that this is an unrealistic timeline to prepare and complete in-depth public health research, and the gag order was a shock to many. While several well-meaning Canadian scientists participated on the advisory committee, the flawed process the Tories set up was well described in an open letter signed by several of Canada's leading addiction researchers: "We see no possibility whatsoever that any data or information which does not yet exist in some fashion can be collected in such a time frame" and decried the fact that the work had to be conducted in secrecy, stating that "scientific knowledge be openly accessible to the public realm."
Despite the constraints placed upon it, the Conservatives' committee concluded that Insite had a range of benefits and there was no evidence of harm. Having failed to discredit the scientific evidence, the Tories then embraced purchased "critiques" of Insite that later disclosures revealed actually were funded by the RCMP and posted on a website hosted by the conservative law enforcement lobby group known as the Drug Free America Foundation.
With Insite's future in doubt, the decision now before the B.C. Court of Appeal has profound implications for the role of science in Canada's approach to addiction. Regardless of the outcome, those sitting in the court of public opinion should be aware of the lengths the Harper government will go to ensure that the scientific process is sufficiently manipulated to suit its ideological needs.
Evan Wood is an associate professor in the department of medicine at the University of British Columbia.
Director of the Urban Health Program at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS
Aug 07, 2009 04:30 AM