A one-of-a-kind debate in Victoria this week brought science and technology to the minds of federal candidates who all, despite their differences, agreed vociferously on one thing: Canada needs to be freed from the “war on science.”
In a packed room at the University of Victoria federal candidates for the NDP, Liberal and Green parties voiced unanimous concern with the muzzling of scientists, the cuts to research funding and the lack of transparency in government decision-making — all of which have, the candidates argued, became common place in the last four years of Conservative party majority rule.
Event organizer Aerin Jacob, a postdoctoral fellow in Geography at the University of Victoria, said Canadians are aware that there is a science crisis in Canada, even if they aren’t clear on the details. She invited candidates from all parties in four Vancouver Island ridings to speak to the community about those concerns.
Jacob said candidates from the Conservative Party did not respond to multiple invitations to participate in the science and technology debate.
Science Under Seige
“I think everyone in this room knows we’re seeing a war on science that is unprecedented, dangerous and deeply ideological,” Liberal candidate Tim Kane told the audience. “There is no doubt science in Canada is under siege.”
Jo-Ann Roberts, former CBC journalist and Green party candidate said the issue of science in Canada “is a big reason why I decided to run for office after being a journalist for 37 years.”
“It is not just war on science: it is information and knowledge in this country that is under siege,” Roberts said. “Canadians are angry about it.”
NDP candidate Murray Rankin said Canada has “moved from the age of enlightenment to the dark ages” due to “arbitrary funding cuts, centralization of power and a lack of respect for research.”
“Stephen Harper’s war on science is everywhere to be seen and his victims are everywhere in our system,” Rankin said.
CBC radio journalist Bob McDonald, who moderated the event, said, despite the current situation, “Canada has a long history of doing really excellent science.”
“We need scientific literacy in politicians and in the public because we have hard decisions we need to make about the future,” he said, “about how we keep ourselves warm, how we move from place to place and where that energy is going to come from, where our food and water is going to come from.”
McDonald told the audience “science is one of the last institutions we have that actually looks for the truth.”
All three candidates said if elected they would take steps to introduce a parliamentary science officer in Ottawa and bring back the mandatory-long form census.
Roberts said the Green Party’s platform includes a plan to make publicly funded science freely available to the public — something both Rankin and Kane said their parties would also pursue. Kane said the federal Liberal Party has plans for a central online portal that would make federal science more easily accessible to the public.
Rankin said the NDP will institute a bill of rights for science in government, something that would protect public servants from the fear of political reprisal.
“There should be an understanding that you can’t be fired for speaking truth to power,” he said.
Science a Number One Election Issue
The non-partisan science advocacy group Evidence for Democracy has been working hard to make science a relevant election issue. The group recently reviewed questions from federal leaders debate since 1968 and found none mentioned science policy.
Katie Gibbs says events like this week's science and technology debate show how much science has become a major player in the upcoming federal election.
“I have actually have been amazed to see how much science is playing into this election,” Gibbs said.
“And I think unprecedented that we’re seeing science as one of the main issues being discussed.”
Gibbs said the issue of science and the current challenged being faced with funding cuts and communications restrictions has “reached the next level of public awareness.”
This week Maclean's listed science as the top policy concern for Canadians who voted in the magazine's policy "face-off." Seventy-four per cent of participants said they wanted to see publicy funded science more readily available to the public.
“It’s really the public that is bringing this up,” Gibbs said.
Transition Off Fossil Fuels Pressing for Candidates
All three candidates promised to reinstate funding for federal science, redirecting funds from contentious oil and gas subsidies.
McDonald asked the candidates to address the “big elephant in the room,” the fact that Canada is an oil producing country.
“How do you make the transition” off of fossil fuels, McDonald asked.
“The majority of fossil fuels must stay in the ground,” Roberts said. “We’re the only party that is opposed to the expansion of the oilsands…because if you’re expanding you’re going to need more pipelines and if you’re expanding you’re not bringing down your greenhouse gasses.”
Roberts said other countries provide a view of what a greener future could have in store for Canada.
“We have seen in Germany their renewable energy is 11 per cent of the GDP,” Roberts said. “Our oil and gas accounts for six per cent [of the GDP] and two per cent of the population works in the sector.”
The transition to cleaner forms of energy won’t occur without incentives, Roberts added.
Rankin said the NDP’s view on oilsands projects and pipelines is that decisions about these kinds of projects has to be “based on science, not ideology.”
“It’s just as bad for the Conservatives to never meet a pipeline they didn’t like for ideological reasons and to simply say we hate them for ideological reasons, “ he said.
Rankin added the transition to renewable energy will affect the approximately 550,000 people employed in the fossil fuel industry and must be “taken seriously.”
Rankin said there are smart ways of looking to transition. “If we move to geothermal — which is a technology that is much easier on the environment —geothermal is found where natural gas is found so that gives us an easy transition from the natural gas industry.”
“The question is sensitive to the reality that we have to look after those people who will be displaced,” he said.
Kane said he saw “lots of commonalities” between the three parties positions, adding the Liberal Party would work to create a favourable tax regime to draw renewable energy technology to cities like Victoria.
Kane also promised the Liberal Party will work with provincial premiers to formalize emissions reductions targets for the nation as a whole and “restore credibility” to the federal environmental assessment process which determines the fate of major oil and gas projects and infrastructure like the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Jacob said she hoped the event would remind Canadians of the importance of science to the upcoming federal election.
“Science is about discovery and it’s exciting. Talking about science is talking about optimism, it’s talking about the future, about what we don’t know and what we want to find out and how we will go about doing that.”
“When people go to the polls they might be thinking about their jobs or their families,” Jacobs said, “but their jobs and families are deeply connected to science and technology whether or not they know it.”
“It’s important for politicians to pay attention to science and tech and for people to ask them questions about it.”
Jacob said she was “thrilled” to see the room so full of community members.
“It gives me hope.”