How science helped to swing the Canadian election

Wednesday Oct 21st 2015 - THE GUARDIAN

After nine years of government attacks on Canadian research, the science community is looking forward to a fresh start under Justin Trudeau.


There was a palpable outpouring of relief from Canadian scientists as the Liberal Party won a majority on Monday night, bringing to an end nine years of escalating hostility by the Harper government towards its own research base. Drastic cuts to funding and constraints on scientific freedom have significantly damaged Canadian research and its capacity to develop science-based public health and environmental policies.

Harper’s assault on science was extensive: with government scientists censored, budgets chopped, data monitoring programs eliminated, scientific libraries shuttered and the contents thrown into dumpsters. The long form census was axed, depriving decision makers of vital information about their citizens. The cumulative consequences for government scientists were profound. “You don’t become a biologist to get rich or powerful,” says Jay Fitzsimmons, a biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. “You become a biologist because you love nature and science. To work under a government that tries to silence scientists is pretty demoralizing.” The issue that received the most attention was the so-called “muzzling” of government scientists. This week, Liberal MP Marc Garneau said that these restrictions would be eliminated “right away.” The chilling of speech extended beyond the walls of government labs to environmental organizations (which quickly found that any criticism of the government would lead to investigations of their tax status) and university scientists who receive government funding. “Finally I feel I can openly follow certain politicians and speak publicly on issues without fear it will result in cuts to my research funding,” says Carleton University fish ecologist Steven Cooke. Things got so bad that scientists and their supporters took to the streets. They demonstrated in Ottawa. They formed an organization, Evidence for Democracy, to bring push back on political interference in science. Awareness-raising forums were held at campuses throughout Canada. And the onslaught on science was painstakingly documented, which tends to happen when you go after librarians. The union that represents many government scientists, the Professional Institute of the Public Service, surveyed its members and published damning evidence of problems in government departments. Its is now making scientific integrity the centerpiece of its current round of collective bargaining. All of these efforts began to attract significant domestic and international attention. There were numerous stories in the media. Opposition MPs took to the Parliament floor to denounce attacks on science. CBC ran a documentary, cleverly titled “The Silence of the Labs.” There was even a folk song, Harperman, which went viral after Environment Canada suspended geographer Tony Turner for performing it. “I knew the song was a little edgy but I believe I was within my rights to sing that song,” he told the Guardian. Eight hundred scientists from thirty-two countries wrote an open letter urging the prime minster to ease restrictions on scientists and data. In October 2014, a Ryerson University professor wrote in Science magazine that the election presented an “opportunity to reboot the federal government’s controversial approach to science policy and research.” All of this advocacy worked. Science became a major campaign issue during the election. There were all-party debates on science policy and extensive media coverage. The Green, Liberal and NDP platforms included significant commitments to restore science to its rightful place in society and public policy. “We’ll reverse the $40 million cut that Harper made to our federal ocean science and monitoring programs,” said Liberal leader Justin Trudeau at a September campaign stop. “The war on science ends with the liberal government.” In tweetafter tweet after tweet, opposition candidates argued that they were best positioned to defend scientific integrity. Now that it’s been elected with a healthy majority, the Liberal Party says it willmake data openly available, unmuzzle scientists, bring back the long form census, appoint a chief science officer, and make the agency Statistics Canada fully independent. Of course, more is required to make this agenda complete. Fortunately, Canada now has a Scientific Integrity Project, which has put a lot of thought into these issues, and the new government would be wise to consult them. Appointing a science adviser and removing speech restrictions should be pretty straightforward. Cultural change will come more slowly. And there’s not a moment to lose. “To maintain the status quo would be to leave the festering wound to rot, leaving no option but to cut off the limb,” says freshwater ecologist Michael Rennie of Ontario’s Lakehead University. He calls for immediate reinvestment in government-based research, as well as the scrapping of bureaucratic rules that make it difficult for departments to hire scientists and for scientists to travel to scientific conferences. “There is a lot of work to be done to keep the pressure on to make sure that they prioritize science once in office and make good on these election promises,” says Evidence for Democracy’s executive director Katie Gibbs. “We’re looking forward to keeping the scientific community mobilized to make these campaign commitments a reality.” In the United States, many celebrated the end of the Bush administration in 2008, thinking that its restrictions on science would evaporate the moment that the Obama administration took office. It wasn’t true. There has been significant progress in protecting scientists from political influence. But the public has still lacked access to scientific information on multiple environmental and public health issues. So who will keep watch over the new government, as it’s forced to choose among its many priorities? Canadian unions, scientists, policy experts and activists need to continue to push for real change. It’s up to those who care most about science and democracy to keep Trudeau on his toes. 

Michael Halpern (@halpsci) is manager of strategy and innovation for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.