We Asked Scientists How Much Better Canada Will Be with Stephen Harper Gone

VICE spoke with four top scientists to find out how the new Canadian government can go about improving science in the country.

Photo via Flickr user ItzaFineDay

By now, it's nearly indisputable that former prime minister Stephen Harper possesses a bizarre and deep-seated dislike for science. During his reign, scientists were banned from talking to journalists about their findings, the mandatory long-form census was eliminated, inexpensive but vital facilities were shuttered, entire departments were either defunded or experienced major staffing cuts. (For a full and very depressing catalog, check out Evidence for Democracy's True North Smart and Free project.)

But there's a new boss in town. Justin Trudeau, prime minister-delegate of Canada, has repeatedly pledged to depoliticize science, vowing to create an independent chief science officer (an idea the Conservatives inexplicably shot down in May), unmuzzle scientists, and restore the long-form census. Re-establishing the country's reputation as a research leader won't be easy. VICE chatted with four scientists to find out what they think about the Liberal victory and how the new government can go about improving science in Canada.

David Schindler, world-renowned limnologist, Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology at Edmonton's University of Alberta, founder and long-time director of the Experimental Lakes Area.

VICE: Any general thoughts about the Liberal victory?
David Schindler:
Well, I think I and every scientist I know is relieved to see Harper out of there. My personal preference would've been for Mulcair, but oh well.

Are you optimistic this next government will take a more nuanced stance on science?
I think they will, but there's enough concern that a group of us are actually drafting a letter to urge the Liberals to get on with setting back the clock on things like environmental legislation that has been damaged. The muzzling of scientists could be banished overnight. So we'll see if there's any response to that. Again, I'd feel more confident if it was the NDP, where things like that were openly discussed during the campaign. I think one of my disappointments is that during the campaign there wasn't more discussion of things like that in the debates.

Why do you think that was? It seems like the muzzling of scientists, for instance, is something that's angered a lot of people in Canada.
I think it was probably more that they always second-guess the public. The big concern is always this nebulous thing called "economy," which to me seems right down there with discussing astrology. But if that's what people want to do. Some people think baseball scores are wildly important. I guess if you really think about global things you realize very quickly that most people worry more about what's going to happen tomorrow [than in the future].

What could the new government do to show it cares about these issues?
Well I think a good start would be to urgently call a meeting of a group to brief them on things that ought to be the basis for their response [at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change] in Paris. Also, the moves to reinstate the pre-Harper environmental legislation and to dissolve the muzzling orders for scientists and beyond that. Another thing that I think has been really important is they ought to call off the bulldogs that are monitoring environmental groups. I know several of them are under audits. Some of them have been spending a lot of their resources in the past two years on audits and the audit chill has been very visible: Instead of environmental groups waving placards at these debates to remind people that there were some issues they ought to pay attention to, there was nothing. These were all private backroom debates. I hope that's the last time that happens.

Kevin Page in his recent book [Unaccountable: Truth, Lies and Numbers on Parliament Hill] is right on. Our whole civil service needs an overhaul. One of the reasons that I'm not optimistic that we'll see a lot of change is over the years I've seen very little change in how these government departments operate, from Liberals to Conservatives and back. The reason is the ministers are all out there fighting political battles and they leave the day-to-day running to senior civil servants. And almost none of them are scientists. They're operating in the dark. Their only criteria are what will keep the minister or party looking good. There's no science there at all. That has to change. Page is right on: we need a total revisitation of the mandates of those departments.

The Telus World of Science in Vancouver. Photo via Flickr user Kenny Louie

Wendy Palen, assistant professor and former Canada Research Chair of aquatic conservation at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University, board member at Evidence for Democracy

Any general thoughts on the recent Liberal victory?
Palen: I have to say I'm still a little bit in shock. It's great. To be honest, I'm still sort of processing what it all means. I find it an incredibly optimistic time in Canada right now. I recognize the election represents an incredible opportunity for Canada, especially with regards to science.

There have been plenty of issues documented by organizations like Evidence for Democracy over the years, whether it be the muzzling of scientists or funding cuts or facilities getting shut down. Have these sort of actions impacted your work or the work of people you know?
My work hasn't been directly impacted by things like the closures of the Experimental Lakes Area, but I've certainly been very aware of many of those stories. And I know some of those scientists, and have interacted with them. But of course, we're all affected in different ways. The biggest thing I feel is when I go to scientific conferences: my colleagues from other countries come up to me in bewilderment and just want to know what's going on in Canada. I also work on a lot of energy development and climate-related issues. For me, that's very hard to take. I think of Canada as being this progressive and thoughtful and evidence-based sort of a place in terms of basic values. My hope with the election is those values will come back to the forefront. It's a really positive step in the right direction, for me.

What do you think the past nine years of Conservative reign has done to science in Canada as a whole?
It's been well documented. We have eroded our public science capacity in Canada. The capacity to both monitor the consequences of our decisions in terms of government action and then also to understand what's happening in both our environment and in public health. In my mind, rebuilding our public science capacity has to be a priority for the future by hiring back thousands of scientists that were fired during the last ten years, which an essential first step to restoring the capacity to make evidence-based decisions about the health and prosperity of Canadians now and in future generations. I see that as a huge piece of our challenge in the coming years. I have every reason to hope because they've made strong commitments for science and evidence-based decision-making during the campaign. Things like reinstating the long-form census and unmuzzling government scientists are obviously a really big part of that. Things like creating an independent chief science officer are things that Liberals are on record as having promised, and Evidence for Democracy and me as an individual scientist are really excited to see them follow through on those things.

You mentioned that a lot of your work is around energy and climate, which seem to be two of the issues the previous government was most averse to discussing in real terms. Do you think it's fair to say the reason a lot of this happened was so they can maintain their ideological stance on the issues?
I can't even say the answer to that would be "yes," even if I were to be on the inside circle that knows those sorts of things. I feel like what we have evidence on is that Canada's not doing its part internationally to address climate change with meaningful legislation. Canada is seen as a climate laggard right now rather than a climate leader. We have the lowest, least ambitious targets of any developed nation. That's not even subscribing to anything ideologically: we're not doing our part in any sort of proportional way. Justin Trudeau has not come out with a lot of specifics about what his government will hope to achieve in terms of climate. There are some things there. But Paris is really soon. It's hard to know what's going to be possible between now and then. But again, I'm still very hopeful the fundamental change in perspective in terms of where these governments seem to be coming from give me a lot of hope on the climate file: there's a lot of opportunity there with the new Liberal government.

Photo via Flickr user Laurel L. Russwurm

Michael Rennie, assistant professor in biology at Thunder Bay's Lakehead University, Canada Research Chair in Freshwater Ecology and Fisheries, former research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, founder of blog unmuzzledscience

Any initial thoughts on the Liberal victory?
Rennie: I'm optimistic in the sense it's going to be a different gang holding the strings. The main issue I see, and this would be an issue for anyone coming in right now, is there are certain things you can fix right away—let's open communication channels a bit. As a government scientist, I received media training. In that process, you get the impression your communications department is going to help your promote your research rather than keep you from talking about it. That would be relatively easy to change in a short amount of time.

What's going to be the difficult part?
Dealing with the systematic dismantling that's occurred over the past six-or-so years. [Former Fisheries and Oceans biologist] Steve Campana has said, and I would tend to agree, that it's probably going to take about a decade of concerted effort to undo the damage that was done under the previous government. We're talking about systemic change. They changed acts of government in order to better facilitate development. In doing so, they absolutely gutted entire sections of the science departments of, say, Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

What did the dismantling of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, for instance, look like?
They don't have a contaminants program anymore. It doesn't exist. We're talking about hundreds of staff and some of the top scientists in the world doing this sort of research who have now moved on into private sector or doing other things. How do you rebuild that capacity? I don't know. Maybe you don't. Maybe you say "we're not going to down that contaminants angle anymore."

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is so understaffed: they have capacity for just about nothing. That dovetailed with all the top-down thing where it takes you six forms to hire a summer student and you've got to work on it six months before you want him. Everything right now is setup to make nothing happen. So it's that stuff that needs to change. A serious reinvestment that demonstrates they're committed to making government science happen, but also a commitment on the bureaucratic end that they're going to make changes to the processes in place so that we can actually hire the people we need and it's not going to take three years to hire a new scientist or biologist. That's all going to take time. It's really going to be hard for that to happen overnight.

Are you optimistic that change will come?
There is some hope here. Justin Trudeau has already said he plans to have a cabinet of decision makers. It already sounds like he's committed to letting people run their own departments, which never happened under the previous government. If that same philosophy is carried on down the line, we might actually see something happen because everything stalls out largely because everyone is so risk-averse. Every manager is going to pass it up the line, which is entirely the wrong way to go. If people at the managerial level can start making their own decisions without having to get approval from six levels up then we might actually be able to see some things happen. But in large part that's going to require that systemic change so that it doesn't take five forms of ministerial approval to hire a summer student.

You were recently quoted in Science saying that a majority government can lead to issues around science funding and communication. Expand on that a bit.
There's not as much accountability. You can do what you want and no-one can really do anything about it. I'm hopeful in terms of the way things were set up in terms of commitments that were made by the Liberal Party moving into this to say "we recognize a reinvestment in science as a major priority, we're going to bring back the long-form census," all of the campaign promises that were made. Fingers crossed that they're going to follow through on that stuff. If they don't, there's not a whole lot we can do other than continue to stamp our feet and shout. We'll have to see where things go. My hope is this next government will want to be held accountable for the things they promised and provide a means of following through on those things.

Tony Turner, former Environment Canada habitat planning scientist focused on mapping solutions for songbirds in boreal forest, suspended for writing the protest song "Harperman"

Any general thoughts on the recent Liberal victory?
Turner: I think it's a positive thing. Any of the viable opposition parties that could've won would've been fine. It's such a contrast between any alternatives from the Harper regime.

There's been a lot of talk over the last few years about issues like the muzzling of scientists and funding cuts. The response to your song "Harperman" seemed pretty emblematic of the crushing of dissent. Was that whole experience unexpected for you?
No, it was totally unexpected. I wasn't walking with my eyes open into a situation where I thought I was provoking the government. I had these two separate lives as a singer-songwriter and as a government employee. I thought I was acting within the values and ethics of the department and have freedom of speech, as all public servants do. But they don't always exercise it. I think that's one of the key things. That's why the government was clamping down on freedom of expression for public servants. I had lunch with some of my work colleagues a few days ago and they still feel like they can't say anything. There was a column on CBC that I contributed to a few days ago and they couldn't get anyone from within the government to speak during this transition period. You can really feel people still feel quite muzzled.

Tell me more about muzzling.
There's two aspects to muzzling: there's getting your results out there, and that's how I think muzzling should be actually interpreted. Getting the results of your research out to the public, or being published, or whatever. My case was different because my results were never muzzled, per se. I wasn't doing pure research. Mine was more the freedom of expression to express myself in a song during a political campaign while being employed in the public service. They're related because they both have to do with freedom of expression.

Would you say the issue of muzzling grew under the Conservative government?
Certainly, we'd never heard the term before the Conservative government was in power. All of a sudden there came examples of people whose results were not being allowed to be published or made public. We would get information about some issue like sea ice in the North, but we'd hear in from the United States before we could hear it from our own scientists who actually generated the research. It's stuff like that: really, really over-the-top control of objective information. I think the Conservatives just did not know how to handle real information to support their decision-making because their agenda was so ideologically based.

What are a few things the next government can do to show Canadians and scientists they do care about issues like this?
I think Mr. Trudeau said it publicly, and so have the local members who have been elected in the Ottawa area: they want the public service to know that they care about what they're doing and they're going to change the way things operate, and they're going to make evidence-based decision-making. I want to believe that he will be true to that statement, that he will use evidence-based decision-making and will unmuzzle the scientists. In their platform, they've designated a chief science officer, who will help make science available to the public through a single portal or mechanism. They're going to unmuzzle scientists so they can speak about their research. And they're going to develop processes where scientific results are considered when they make decisions. It's not always going to be the key factor that informs decision making but it has to be there as part of a whole mixture of other political considerations when they do make decisions. We've seen that kind of balance in previous governments: even if they haven't always used science, it's at least there in the decision-making processing. But under Stephen Harper it never seemed a consideration in decision-making at all. That's just wrong in an educated, modern society.

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