A New Day for Canadian Science?
By: April Killikelly, Ph.D.
With elections so close at hand in the United States, it may have gone unnoticed by many that our neighbours to the north, Canada, voted for massive political change on October 19th. The left-of-center Liberal Party of Canada won enough seats to form a majority government, making its leader, Justin Trudeau, the new Prime Minister of Canada. This follows almost nine years of rule by the right-of-center Conservative Party of Canada, led by Steven Harper. This new government is unique in that it creates the first federal political dynasty in Canada, as Justin Trudeau is son of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who was Prime Minister of Canada for most of 15 years from 1968-1984. And importantly, it may also represent a new era for Canadian science.
The legacy of the outgoing Conservative government remains to be seen in these early days of transition, but an emerging consensus among Canadian scientists is that Trudeau’s new Liberal government could represent the end of the dark days of science in Canada. The previous Conservative government had been hard on science in many ways. Like many scientists worldwide dealing with post 2008-budgets, Canadian researchers were dealing increased competition for shrinking research dollars. In addition, they also were contending with shifting funding priorities, cancellation of funding to long-standing scientific endeavors, climate policy not grounded in evidence-based science and, maybe most egregiously, muzzle orders from Ottawa, Canada’s capital.
The previous Conservative government put a large emphasis on funding public-private partnerships, often at the expense of basic and translational science. The goal of many of these programs was to expedite the timeline of products to market. Although this was and is a worthy goal, many think that exclusively funding these programs, without supporting the underlying and earlier product development, is overly myopic. James Turk, the Executive Director of Canadian Association of University Teachers, said of the 2013-2014 federal budget, “This is all money that’s being squeezed out of what should be going for discovery research. Previous budgets had signaled a shift of priorities from basic research to various collaborations with industry. This budget confirms that.” With this approach, the Conservative Government eliminated approximately 2500 scientific jobs and reduced Canada’s standing in the global scientific community, which dropped in rankings of scientific research and development spending amongst 41 comparable nations from 16th in 2006 to 23rd in 2011, as estimated by The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.
One project that epitomized these shifting research goals was the cancellation of the obligatory Canadian long form census, a 61-question survey of 20% of households that had previously been done every five years. This was replaced by the Conservatives with a voluntary 8-question census in 2011, after saying that the original questions were intrusive. Due to its essential role in helping guide policy on social programs and infrastructure needs, the research community was in an uproar over this decision. In his first week as Prime Minister, Trudeau re-instated the long form census with the statement that he is “committed to a government that functions based on evidence and facts, and long-form censuses are an important part of making sure we’re serving constituents in our communities with the commitment.” This rapid and clear reversal of the census decision may suggest that Trudeau will act to reverse some of Harper’s other decisions, such as federal funding cuts for the 46-year old Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). The ELA is a series of lakes in northern Ontario that was the site of discovery of acid rain and the environmental effects of mercury and synthetic hormones. This is the only facility in the world where lakes can be intentionally poisoned in order to discover the effects on ecosystems. Federal funding to this world-renowned institute was cut in 2013. Luckily, in the case of ELA, the Ontario and Manitoba provincial governments stepped in to save it from closure.
The attempted shuttering of the ELA echoes the tone of the previous government towards environmental research and climate policy. The Harper government pulled Canada out of the Kyoto protocol in 2011, eliminated the national roundtable on Environment and the Economy in 2012, and withdrew from the UN Treaty to Combat Desertification in March 2013. Canada was made to be an “outlier” on the world stage of climate policy involving 194 other nations. These policies did not reflect the opinions of Canada’s scientists and they took it upon themselves to stand up for their science. 71 co-authors penned the Sustainable Canada Dialogues report, which they made openly available to the public, under the leadership of Catherine Potvin, a climate and policy researcher at McGill University in Montreal.
The Harper Government responded to this open dissension by instituting a mandate requiring all government scientists to seek approval before speaking with the media. This resulted in journalists receiving ridiculously long delays and refusals to their requests for information or interviews that once were innocuous and routine. The muzzling of scientists shocked many media outlets, researchers and the public at large. So egregious was this breach of public trust, that Democracy Watch and the Environmental Law Center at the University of Victoria “has requested that the Federal Information Commissioner investigate the apparent systematic efforts by the Government of Canada to obstruct the right of the media and through them, the Canadian public – to timely access to government scientists.” The investigation is still ongoing at the time of this writing.
It doesn’t take a census (voluntary or otherwise) to appreciate that shifting funding priorities, cancelling funds to long-standing scientific endeavors, enacting climate policy not grounded in science and muzzling scientists has created an unpleasant environment for Canadians to do science. How much damage Harper’s government has done to the Canadian scientific community remains to be seen. As Simon Donner from the University of British Columbia points out, “it’s easier to close a lab than it is to start a new one. There’s a structural deficit now and it may take a long time to come back.”
Trudeau and the new Liberal government have already started down the road of mending fences and filling budget holes. Canada now has two science ministers: Kirsty Duncan as the Minister of Science and Navdeep Bains as the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. Katie Gibbs, who founded Evidence for Democracy in 2012 says, “We really like this division (of two ministers) because it seems that … they are separating out science for business and economic development, versus all the other kinds of science – basic, fundamental research, public interest science. Those are the kinds of science that really got ignored under the previous government. I’m really impressed with her (Duncan’s) background. One of our complaints (was that) of the three ministers of state for science in the previous government, none of them had any kind of science or research background.” Along with those appointments, Trudeau’s Government has also renamed the Minister of Environment as the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and appointed the first Canadian in space, Marc Garneau, as the Minister of Transport. But there is reason to remain cautious; while Trudeau concedes “We have to do something about [ELA budget cuts]” he is not forthcoming with details of how to repair other damage done.
On the upside, with less than a month in office, Trudeau may have already done more to improve Canadian science than Harper did in his almost decade-long tenure. The advantage of being at the bottom is there is nowhere to go but up.