Trudeau Promised To Bring Us Out of Canada’s Anti-Science Era, But We’re Not There Yet

The Harper years were characterized by a sustained war on science, as documented by science librarian John Dupuis and Calgary writer Chris Turner, among others.

So when Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won a majority government in last fall’s federal election, some commentators suggested that Canadians weren’t necessarily drawn to the Liberal platform, but were so fed up with the Conservative government that they voted for “anyone but Harper.”

The Harper legacy that Trudeau inherited was a troubling one.

It included muzzling of government scientists and cuts to key government-based science-related positions and programs such as the National Science Advisor and the Advisory Council on Science and Technology — to name just a few.

Budget cuts to science-focused government departments (e.g., Fisheries and Oceans, Environment, Parks Canada, etc.) led to scientists being laid off from the public service. Federal libraries were shuttered and irreplaceable historical data was tossed into dumpsters.

This affected the scientific capacity of federal agencies, particularly when it came to policy-making. Key legislation was then changed and watered down (e.g., Federal Fisheries Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act, Environmental Assessment Act).

The final insult was the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census, which hamstrung policy-making at all levels of government.

University research funding through the tri-council agencies (NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR) was decreased, with the remaining funds strongly tied to key government priorities, essentially replacing basic research with applied research.

Funding for long term research programs was either severely cut or removed entirely: for example, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS), the Polar Environment and Atmospheric Lab (PEARL), the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), and more.  

Tweet: ‘Trudeau used the election to tap into public & scientist frustrations with Harper’s anti-science agenda’ http://bit.ly/2ipDLC6 #cdnpoliTrudeau used the election campaign to tap into the frustrations of the public and scientists with Harper’s anti-science agenda.

He included goodies for scientists in his platform, regularly mentioning the importance of science and science-based decision-making.

Upon taking office, therefore, he not only had to deliver on his promises (some of which are laid out in the Minister of Science’s Mandate Letter), but also deal with the broken system left behind by the previous government.

How has Trudeau fared on these two fronts? It seems he’s made some positive steps thus far.

Trudeau immediately created a Minister of Science position under the portfolio of the Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, and appointed a former scientist — Kirsty Duncan — to that position. In June, Duncan initiated a federal science funding review. All Canadians were invited to contribute, with a final report expected in January of 2017.

At the same time, the Minister of Innovation initiated a public consultation process on Canadian innovation, which included “supporting global science excellence.”

In October of this year, Evidence for Democracy (E4D) celebrated several of Trudeau’s science-related promises. These included officially unmuzzling government scientists, earmarking funds for freshwater research at the ELA, hiring more scientists at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and restoring the long-form census.

Two additional success, however, come with some caveats. While E4D supported Trudeau’s move to make government data more openly accessible, it’s important to note that Harper also introduced an open data and open publication policy — focused on the tri-council agencies rather than government as a whole — as part of his Action Plan on Open Government.

And while E4D approved of Trudeau’s announcement of funding for a new ocean research institute at Dalhousie University, this project was funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which was actually initiated by Harper in 2014.

Regardless, there has been additional good news since October. In that time, the Minister of Science has pushed to increase the diversity of researchers appointed to Canada Research Chair and Canada Excellence Research Chair positions. She has also announced an open competition to fill the long-awaited position of Chief Science Advisor for Canada.

Most recently, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) was able to enshrine in their collective agreement with the government the right for federal scientists the right to share their research with the media.

It’s not all “sunny ways,” however.

E4D and others have reported that some federal departments haven’t fully incorporated the unmuzzling directive. Some bureaucrats were quoted as saying that “unmuzzled scientists should be kept on a tight leash,” though they may have changed their minds since then.

E4D noted that promised policies from Trudeau to promote open science were lacking. There’s also the question of federal libraries: we don’t really know what state they’re in, or whether the damage done during the Harper years can or will be reversed.

While funding for new Fisheries and Oceans scientific staff is an excellent step forward, what about other science-related departments: Environment Canada, the Canadian Space Agency, Health Canada, and more?

Additionally, while the fundamental science review is a good idea, the success of the outcome depends on how the committee weighs and incorporates input from all stakeholders. And at the university level, the government continues to deal with grant review and funding problems at the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), problems precipitated by a restructuring of the agency completed under the Harper government.

Though the Liberals announced new funding to the tri-agencies to support basic research across Canada, overall funding for these agencies remains tight.

While Trudeau’s report card on Canadian science issues looks good so far, there’s still a lot of heavy lifting ahead.

This includes evaluating and implementing the recommendations of the fundamental science review, determining the role of science in Canada’s innovation economy, incorporating science into evidence-based decision making (as requested by 1800 early career researchers), and fully incorporating the principles of open science into government research.

We’ll see how things are going by the end of 2017.

Image: Justin Trudeau at the Perimeter Institute. Photo: Facebook

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Sarah Boon was an environmental science professor for seven years before returning to writing. Her articles about academic culture, women…

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