It has been a year since the federal Liberal Party came into power. Although less than 10 per cent of the party’s platform focused on science, the goals they set in this area were ambitious. Broadly speaking, their scientific pledges centred on exercising evidence-based decision-making and supporting scientists. A year in, the Liberals have fulfilled some of their pledges, but have fallen short on others. Below is an assessment of where the government stands in completing their science-related campaign promises.
Chief Science Officer
One of the Liberals’ platform promises was to appoint a Chief Science Officer (CSO), a position that would be similar to Chief Scientific Advisor in the United Kingdom and Science Advisor to the President of the United States. According to the Liberal Party, the CSO would report to the Prime Minister and be responsible for ensuring that government science is more accessible, scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and government decisions have a scientific basis.
The previous government was widely criticized for restricting government scientists and preventing them from responding to the media.
Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan says that she has been consulting with many different groups on this issue, but no appointment has been made yet. On top of the responsibilities outlined in the Liberal Party platform, a letter from the Royal Society of Canada also calls the future CSO to push for more funding for basic research funding and to launch an investigation into the closing of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries, among other suggestions.
Whoever is appointed to this position has a great deal of work cut out for them. Moreover, it is clear that these goals cannot be accomplished by a single person. There must be a fundamental shift in how the Canadian government treats scientists and scientific information.
Protecting freshwater and oceans
On this year’s United Nations’ World Water Day, the government announced a $197.1 million investment in ocean and freshwater research to be rolled out over five years. Another $81.3 million will also go towards supporting marine conservation over five years.
This funding announcement is leading to the expansion of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which is hiring 135 new employees.
Part of this funding is also going towards the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s Experimental Lakes Area, whose funding was cut by the federal government two years ago. The Experimental Lakes Area is an outdoor laboratory of 58 small lakes that have been devoted to scientific research on the impacts of climate change, pollutants, invasive species, and other perturbations in lake ecosystems.
The long-form census and Statistics Canada
The Liberals pledged to restore the mandatory long-form census and make Statistics Canada independent. One of Statistics Canada’s biggest projects is the census, which is conducted every five years. It is used to collect demographic data that is then used to make decisions about public services and other issues.
For the census, one in four households receive a 36-page questionnaire. In 2011, the Conservative government made the long-form census voluntary, and the response rate dropped from 93.5 per cent in 2006 to 77 per cent. The decreased response resulted in lower-quality data.
Fulfilling a Liberal campaign promise, the long-form census was again made mandatory in 2016. This year, the response rate to the long-form census was the highest ever, recorded at 97.8 per cent.
The restoration of the long-form census falls in line with the Liberal government’s pledge to pursue evidence-based decision-making. However, they appear to be falling short on their other promise to “make Statistics Canada fully independent,” a drastic shortcoming marked by the resignation of the organization’s chief statistician Wayne Smith this past September.
Smith cited the limitations imposed by a centralized IT service, known as Shared Services Canada, as the reason for his departure. Shared Services Canada was created in 2011 to consolidate and streamline government IT services. However, Smith argued that this agency has impeded the ability of Statistics Canada to carry out its work. He also believes that the centralized IT system makes the data collected by Statistics Canada vulnerable to privacy breaches. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said little about this issue, and it remains to be seen if the Liberal government will address Smith’s concerns.
Climate change and sustainable technology
The Liberals have pledged to take action on climate change by “putting a price on carbon,” reducing pollution, and investing in research in sustainable technology. Trudeau has announced that provinces must adopt either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system by 2018, otherwise the federal government will impose its own tax.
This is set to be $10 per tonne in 2018 and will increase to $50 per tonne by 2022. A carbon tax already exists in British Columbia. However, not all provinces and territories are supportive of this plan, with some saying that they cannot afford it.
As part of their investment in research, the Liberal Party has promised to establish Canada Research Chairs in sustainable technology. The first Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Chemistry was awarded this year to Dr. Zachary Hudson of the University of British Columbia. The government has also taken steps to set up a panel to review how environmental assessment is performed in Canada.
In the past, environmental assessments have been accused of being too lengthy and failing to protect important ecosystems. The panel will consult with First Nations groups and work closely with other departments, such as Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources, and Transport Canada.
Coming close, but falling short
The Liberal platform pledged $40 million each year to help employers create more co-op placements in STEM and business programs for young Canadians. However, since coming into office, the Liberals have announced $73 million in funding over five years — $14.6 million per year — for this program, which is a significantly smaller amount.
Furthermore, the $200 million a year that was promised to startup incubators and accelerators and the $100 million pledged to the Industrial Research Assistance Program have been redistributed and postponed. Finally, the $15 million in funding promised to the Public Health Agency of Canada in each of the next two years, which was to go towards a campaign to boost vaccination rates, has been decreased to $25 million over five years.
It is too soon to give the Liberals a grade on how well they’ve supported science in Canada. While some campaign promises have been fulfilled, other critical reforms are still pending. The steps taken so far have been a refreshing change following the funding cuts introduced by the Conservative government.
However, if Trudeau and his party truly want to support evidence-based decision-making, scientific research, and innovation, they have a long way to go. Some of the most pressing issues include appointing a Chief Science Officer and addressing the concerns of Statistics Canada.