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What the Canadian Election Means for Science

A change in government could have a generational impact on the scientific community.
October 16, 2015, 6:00pm

Canadian scientists and their supporters have called on the federal government to stop cutting scientific research and muzzling its scientists. Photo via The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

The Harper government's unlove affair with science and lust for industry isn't exactly a secret. Even international media outlets have run stories about the Harper government's "war on science," the muzzling of scientists, and Canada's science community has responded accordingly.

"The government's policies towards science in general over the past few years haven't been very good, and I think, certainly, government science has been hit the hardest," said Katie Gibbs, executive director for advocacy group Evidence for Democracy.

Read more: Canadian Scientists Are Rallying Against the Government's War on Science

"Things aren't looking very good for government science right now in Canada."

Depending on how everything goes down on October 19, federal science may get a reviving shot that Conservative critics say it desperately needs as all of the other three major parties (yes, I'm counting the Greens) have promised to restore what science-based federal agencies have been losing under Harper.

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Muzzled scientists have made the catchiest headlines, but it's hardly the only problem. Budget cuts (Environment Canada's lost hundreds of millions alone), staff sackings (we've lost more than 2,000 federal scientists in the past five years), the elimination of the long-form census, and libraries getting tossed are also among the Tory decisions heavily criticized by the larger scientific community.

The Conservative Party would not respond to a request for comment for this article, but in a debate on CBC radio program Quirks and Quarks, Conservative candidate for Cambridge and former minister of state for science and technology Gary Goodyear defended his party's record.

"This government has a 'seizing Canada's moment' strategy. We have put more funding into scientific research, innovation, and ultimately moving that knowledge discovery into commercialization, more funding than ever in the history of this country," Goodyear said.

And he's technically not wrong. For example, the Conservatives created the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, a $1.5 billion [$1.1 billion USD] pool that post-secondary institutes can apply to receive grants from. The government also committed to make a $1.33 billion [$1 billion] investment over six years into the Canada Foundation for Innovation, another proposal-based funding system. As well, the 2015 budget proposed an additional $37 million [$28 million USD] to three granting councils (Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences, and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council).

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That last point comes with the caveat though—the funds won't be available until 2016-2017, meaning funding this year has stagnated at 2014 levels ($2.7 billion [$2 billion USD] combined). And the funds aren't exactly a free-for-all as portions have been earmarked for "market-driven initiatives," according to the Higher Education Strategy Associates in their analysis of the 2015 budget.

Protest in favor of scientific freedom. Photo via Facebook/Evidence for Democracy

"Though the Tories have made sure they cannot be accused of abandoning research, they are certainly not making it a priority, either," the analysis said. "The government's insistence on dictating the minutiae of how to spend funds provided to granting councils… lays bare the its attitude that it knows a lot more about research priorities than do researchers themselves."

The analysis also took aim at the Conservatives bragging about making the largest-ever investments in research when it comes to the Canada Foundation for Innovation. "This is sheer puffery: at an average of $222 million [$171 million USD] in new funding per year, this is substantially below the 1997-2012 average of $370 million [$286 million] per year in funding. This will make it difficult for Canada to maintain its position as a research leader in areas such as science, engineering, and medicine."

But in the debate, Goodyear defended the Conservatives' commercial-friendly approach.

"Science powers commerce…. The direction the government is going is the direction the world, in many cases, has already gone," Goodyear said.

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But what industry has gained, basic research and federal agencies have lost, according to Green Party Burnaby North-Seymour candidate Lynne Quarmby when she spoke with VICE. Quarmby, who's also Simon Fraser University's Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, said she's seen firsthand the damage inflicted by the Harper government's approach to science.

"Basic science, research, is at starvation level. It's very, very underfunded. There's been a realignment of research funding to tie it to corporations," she said, a view she repeated during the Quirks and Quarks debate.

"I felt it personally, but I've also witnessed [the impact on] many of my colleagues. It's getting harder and harder for people to fund their research, and that mean we are training far fewer graduate students. And because we're training fewer graduate students, Canada's going to have fewer trained scientists in the future," she said.

"We're losing the creativity and serendipity of curiosity-driven research."

For its part, the Green Party is vowing to restore funding to science-based federal agencies, rehire scientists, and immediately restore the long-form census. Other Green ambitions include providing $75 million [$58 million USD] per year to "add critical science capacity to Environment Canada, Health Canada, Parks Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans," enacting legislation that would make all government-funded research publicly accessible and "ensure that any new laws or regulations are based on sound evidence that is transparent, rigorous, ethically produced, easy to access and understand, based on the best available information, and free from political manipulation."

Very clever! VERY clever. Photo via Facebook/PIPSC SP Group

When asked about their position, the NDP pointed at previous statements that also say it will immediately restore the long-form census so that it'll be ready for 2016, "work to re-establish scientific capacity in government departments, including Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans," create a science advisory-type office and invest $105 million [$81 million USD] over five years in post-secondary research.

"In the face of overwhelming evidence of climate change, Stephen Harper made it his priority to muzzle scientists and to stop leading experts from sharing important scientific information whenever it didn't suit Conservative ideologies and objectives," NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said in a statement from September. "An NDP government will reverse this alarming trend and promote the voice of Canada's scientists, as they are key to the health and safety of Canadians."

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NDP environment critic and Halifax candidate Megan Leslie also took a swipe at the Conservatives' industry-focused approached during the Quirks and Quarks debate, accusing them of abandoning the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory in favor of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, which focuses on natural resources. And even industry partners are noticing the cuts to federal science, Leslie said.

"I kid you not, I have had industry sit at the table with me and say, 'Please, if you do become a part of forming government, will you please hire more people at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and at Environment Canada because there's no one left, there's no capacity,'" she said.

The Liberals say if they form the next government, federal scientists will be able to speak freely about their work "with only limited and publicly stated exceptions" and that they'll create a portal where the public can access federal science. The Grits also plan on undoing several of the Harper government's budget cuts, including $40 million [$30 million USD] to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and $25 million [$19 million USD] to Parks Canada, and like the Greens and NDP, install a Chief Science Officer.

"Government should base its policies on facts, not make up facts based on policy," a Liberal Party backgrounder document reads. "Without evidence, government makes arbitrary decisions that have the potential to negatively affect the daily lives of Canadians."

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Liberal NDG-Westmount candidate and former astronaut Marc Garneau echoed the sentiment in the Quirks and Quarks debate, saying the government's been sending "a message that ideology can be more important than actual scientific evidence." Garneau was also critical of the Conservatives allotting funds to certain endeavors, and when Goodyear countered with the fact that it's other scientists, not the government itself, who review applications and decide who gets grants, Garneau said the government still "[sets] the tone."

"The government should not play God with respect to science and decide which science is more important than others. That is a short-sighted approach to scientific research," Garneau said.

Like everything in this election, it's a game of numbers of promises when it comes to the future of science on October 19, but it basically boils down to this: a party that highly values commercialization and industry partnerships, and three parties that want to bring back what's been lost over the past decade. It's worth noting that the Greens, Liberals, and NDP aren't anti-economically-profitably science—all three mention "clean" or "green" jobs in their platforms. But even if the NDP, Liberals, or Greens (haha, kidding) emerge victorious on October 19 and follow through with their promises, Gibbs said it would still take some time before Canadian government science will be back on its feet.

"Things have gotten so bad. It's going to be very hard to fix them," she said. "But this is a good first step to reversing the trends we've seen in the past few years."

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