Editorial: No substitute for scientists

Recruiting volunteers to collect monthly seawater samples to be analyzed for traces of radioactivity is a splendid idea, but let’s hope Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn’t get wind of it. He might be tempted to take this “citizen scientist” concept too far.

Jay Cullen, a University of Victoria chemical oceanographer, is assembling a coastal radioactivity monitoring program to look for the presence of “fingerprint elements” released from the site of three nuclear-plant meltdowns that resulted from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. “Citizen scientists” will be recruited to collect water samples from 14 locations between Victoria and Haida Gwaii.

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The project will also collect salmon from the major spawning runs to determine the extent of contamination in the fish. The salmon will be analyzed by Health Canada.

Cullen will be checking for specific radioactive elements — cesium 134 and 137 — that do not occur naturally in seawater and in sea creatures. The Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster aroused much concern that radioactivity from Japan would poison the coastal waters of North America, but federal monitoring programs have not yet detected those radioactive substances in concentrations that would jeopardize human health.

Fears persist, though, some of them fanned by exaggerated reports circulated on the Internet. Cullen’s project aims to counter those rumours with solid and transparent information.

“When quality information isn’t available, poor-quality information rushes in to fill that gap,” he said. “That’s the great and terrible thing about the Internet.”

The more samples that can be analyzed, the better the information, and that’s where the volunteers come in — there aren’t enough scientists to collect the samples that will be needed during the three-year project.

Volunteers’ contributions will be valuable, but it’s the federal government’s responsibility to monitor and protect the environment. That has been hampered by constant cutbacks in funding, the muzzling of scientists and the short-sighted insistence that government scientists focus on research that generates economic returns.

Enthusiastic laypersons can and do play important roles in research, and the more involved, the better. Those who help in the seawater project are likely to bring enthusiasm and a deep concern for the environment to the project.

Yet they should add to the work of trained scientists, not substitute for them.

Given Harper’s apparent disregard for and hostility toward scientists, especially those working in environmental fields, we would not want him to see unpaid volunteers as a means to dodge the government’s responsibility to look after the environment.

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