Cue the lab coat-clad politicians with their bubbling beakers: the #VoteScience campaign launches today with a goal of putting science front and centre in federal candidates’ minds as they go about campaigning this fall.
Organizers say the campaign is filling a void in the conversations we expect as the election progresses.
“Realistically, if we did nothing, the baseline is that there would be almost no mention of science in the election campaign,” says Katie Gibbs, director of Evidence for Democracy, one of the groups behind the campaign. “The bar is often pretty low.”
When Gibbs talks about science, she means the funding structures, the integration of science into policy and transparency and openness.
Cuts to science have been in the news more in the last few years as U.S. President Donald Trump has for three years in a row attempted to rampage through the edifice of American publicly funded science.
“All Canadians benefit from our track record of scientific discovery and progress,” says Farah Qaiser, a graduate student and president of the Toronto Science Policy Network. “But these kinds of contributions and life-saving discoveries can only happen in a society where we support the funding of scientific research and support the next generation of scientists.”
Together with Evidence for Democracy and the Toronto Science Policy Network, four other science organizations including the Science and Policy Exchange and the Canadian Association for Neuroscience are supporting the push for science to factor in the federal election.
‘Science is rarely a key issue in federal elections’
The platform the groups have launched gives a number of pathways for people to get involved. There’s a form letter that visitors to the site can edit and send automatically to candidates in their ridings, with language like “I’m hoping that you will champion policies that invest in public-interest science; ensure open, honest and timely communication of scientific information; and make public the evidence considered in government decisions.”
A sign can be printed with a custom slogan pledging support for science, with the intention of supporters taking a selfie with it and posting it to social media.
There are also tools for people interested in going further — resources for writing and placing op-eds in newspapers, for engaging directly with candidates or for hosting events such as debates or roundtable discussions.
Ultimately, the tools are intended to communicate to candidates that there is a constituency in Canada that cares about science.
“Science is rarely a key issue in federal elections — and we think that has to change,” Qaiser says.
Holding politicians accountable for science promises
The lack of attention to real issues of science is mirrored by a feverish desire among politicians to appear on the side of science. The terms “science-based” or “evidence-based” appear somewhere in the promotional website copy of every major political party (besides Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party) running in the 2019 federal election. But Gibbs worries that through their widespread adoption the terms have lost some of their meaning and have been reduced to buzzwords.
“We’re at that point where there’s a risk of every politician just saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to make science-based decisions,’” Gibbs says. “It’s great that we have made progress in politicians supporting these ideas, but the next step is: how do we hold them accountable?”
Even the term “science” itself can be both overly narrow and overly broad: it can be broad enough to be hijacked in Orwellian ways by anti-science groups like the Friends of Science climate denial organization, while it can be too narrow to carry meaning for many people.
“It can be captured by proponents of various advocacy issues,” explains Paul Dufour, adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa. “That needs to be explained sometimes — that we’re not just talking about some person in a lab.”
During the last federal election, the Liberals promised to restore the status of science after years of cuts and undermining during the Harper years. Some of those promises were met, while others were not.
A promise to invest $40 million a year to increase co-op placements for students in STEM subjects was reduced by half. There is no evidence of progress on a promise to create a single portal for accessing government science.
But other election promises, such as restoring funding to ocean science, or creating a position of chief science adviser, were followed through on. A promise to unmuzzle government scientists has been officially — though, in practice, halfheartedly and inconsistently — implemented.
“I definitely think we have made progress over the last four years, and that’s partly due to the work of the science community,” says Gibbs. “But the gold standard for a lot of these things are pretty far off.”
‘Science is an important part of our civic duty’
Dufour expects that with campaigns like #VoteScience, science will become a major part of the election, with the parties vying for youth votes by one-upping one another’s scientific credentials. But he cautions that the relationship needs to be a “two-way street” — with scientists making their case for how they can help politicians do their jobs more effectively, through better informed decisions.
“Politicians are used to the fact that people come to them looking for money, let’s put it bluntly,” he says.
An important step, he says, is to convince the public to make sure politicians are making use of the science that’s available to them.
“Science is an important part of our civic duty, if you will, in terms of turning up to vote and ensuring that the candidates understand that the decisions they are going to make are going to rely on some rational basis.”
Correction made at 4:30 p.m. on August 8: The article originally stated that U.S. President Donald Trump has made cuts to science. In fact, the president has attempted to make cuts to the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, but was prevented from doing so by Congress.