Photo: Selective science and the death of evidence

While the health effects of noise from wind turbines is a legitimate topic that has received its share of scientific attention, it probably isn't a top priority when science funding is declining and climate research, in particular, has been gutted. (Credit: NapaneeGal via Flickr)

By DSF Staff

On the day that up to 800 scientists and supporters marched on Parliament Hill to protest the "death of evidence" in federal policy-making, it should have been heartening to see Ottawa announce new research on one of the likely building blocks of a low-carbon energy future.

With limited research dollars to go around, you might have thought the government would try to restore funds to the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy or the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), both axed in last month's omnibus budget bill.

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But no. Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq's July 10 media release unveiled a two-year review of the health effects of noise from wind turbines. It's a legitimate topic that has received its share of scientific attention, but it probably isn't a top priority when science funding is declining and climate research, in particular, has been gutted.

The Canadian Wind Energy Association took the high road in its response to the announcement, observing that "Health Canada's proposed new study will contribute to the scientific literature and our knowledge base." And of course that's right, as far as it goes. Any low-carbon technology must be open to continuing, rigorous review. And as CanWEA itself acknowledges, any technology provider has to earn a social licence to operate if it hopes to integrate comfortably with host communities.

A best practices guide on the association's website cites community participation and public consultation as "cornerstone[s] for a successful wind energy development," stressing that "continuous, proactive community engagement is a vital investment for long-term success of your project." The guide reminds wind developers that residents of every community have a right to ask questions, be skeptical and concerned, and oppose developers' plans.

Consistent application of those principles to any energy project — whether it's a wind farm in Ontario or Nova Scotia, a diluted-bitumen pipeline leaking a million gallons of oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo River, or the hugely controversial Northern Gateway pipeline — would clearly lead to better consultation and better results.

But in considering all the challenges on the road to a low-carbon energy future, it's legitimate to ask whether this was the one in most dire need of attention. The $1.8-million study will consume about 20 per cent more money over two years than the budget cut that killed off the PEARL facility, even though:

  • Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health and a growing body of scientific research reject any causal link between wind turbines and human health problems.
  • Wind facilities in Ontario, the province where community pushback against wind development has been strongest, must meet noise exposure limits consistent with World Health Organization standards.
  • Ontario's 550-metre setback for wind projects "is the most stringent in North America and is based on the most up-to-date science," according to the province's environment ministry.

Contrast Ottawa's hyper-vigilance over wind turbine noise with its determination to push ahead with the Northern Gateway project and vilify its opponents, including the David Suzuki Foundation. It's hard to escape the conclusion that this is a matter of politics driving science, not the other way around. That brings us back to two of the most telling comments from Tuesday's Death of Evidence march.

"Scientists are generally not agitators, but this continuous set of decisions has got very many scientists hot under the collar," rally organizer Scott Findlay, a University of Ottawa ecology professor, told CBC. "Most Canadians, regardless of their values or beliefs, think policies should be based on evidence and facts," added organizer Katie Gibbs, a U of O PhD student.

As long as the research is designed well, conducted diligently, and subject to peer review, the Health Canada study will generate usable evidence. But the context is still the bigger question: How can science drive policy when the federal government keeps defunding the agencies and programs that bring it news it doesn't like?

July 13, 2012

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Jul 30, 2012
9:10 AM

Hi Teresa, This article was a collaboration between a number of different people working with the foundation, so we don't have a single author for this one. Thanks for checking back with us!

Jul 26, 2012
7:54 PM

Thank you Ryan (DSF Web Editor)! I appreciate it. It's kinda strange for a columnist to not be identified.

I'm checking back!!! :)

Thanks again!

Jul 23, 2012
9:31 AM

Hey Teresa, I'll see if I can track that down for you!

Jul 20, 2012
8:59 PM

I was wondering if you could post the author of this article? Is it David?
Thank you!

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