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Back-to-school frustration highlights need to separate science, state: experts

Last Updated Sep 4, 2020 at 7:05 am PST

CALGARY (CityNews) – You’ve heard of the separation of church and state but what about the separation of science and state?

Provincial health officers across Canada are coming under fire as schools reopen, with some accused of being too close to politicians.

“Science is supposed to inform political decision making, not the other way around,” said Maya Goldenberg from the University of Guelph.

“Even though we know our public health officers work for the government, they’re not supposed to be promoting a political agenda.”

In Alberta, Dr. Deena Hinshaw–immortalized in crochet and cross-stitch–has seen a furious backlash with her handling of back to school communication.

“If she did overstep in promoting a political agenda that was inconsistent with public health advice, she should probably admit to that,” said Goldenberg.

It’s a similar story for B.C.’s Bonnie Henry who was seen as the rock of provincial health officers, even heralded in the New York Times for her work.

She’s now criticized for appearing in a 30-second government ad on back-to-school safety.

“Certainly good reasons why there were fewer students in the fictional classroom being portrayed,” said Lori Williams with Mount Royal University. “It called into question whether she was actually promoting public health or promoting the agenda.”

Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Doug Ford is defending Dr. David Williams, labelled by some to be a poor communicator who is slow to adapt.

“The key to their credibility is that they’re willing to stand for what they think is right even if it is at odds with what governments said,” added Williams.
Restoring lost trust isn’t easy but Goldenberg said it is possible.

“Public health needs a lot of buy-in from the public when they make recommendations about the flu vaccine, social distancing, so you don’t want to squander that trust on those small things like where they stand on things vis-a-vis the school reopening.”

She added once we start to think that our scientists and our scientific institutions are serving the interest of politics or business interest, then the usefulness of scientists in democratic societies becomes minimized.