It was already dark out on October 19, 2015 when Justin Trudeau took to the stage amid thunderous adulation in the Liberal Party headquarters. With the eyes of millions of Canadians on the newly-minted Prime Minister, he promised that, in Canada, “better is always possible.”
Since that night, numerous groups have debated whether a better Canada has indeed become our reality. For the scientific community, the election of Trudeau, following nearly a decade of silencing and suppression under the Harper administration, was the dawn of a brighter era. It is undoubtable now at the halfway point of his mandate that Trudeau has been a far better friend to scientists than Stephen Harper ever was.
Trudeau’s support for the scientific method and those who practice it is no recent development either. In the announcement of his intention to run for Liberal leadership in 2012, he stated that “the only ideology that must guide us is evidence. Hard, scientific facts and data. It may seem revolutionary in today’s Ottawa, but instead of inventing the facts to justify the policies, we will create policy based on facts.”
As an aspiring scientist, it is easy for me to praise Trudeau as a progressive champion for science in light of Harper’s clampdown, but what has Trudeau accomplished in cold, hard fact?
Acknowledging Trudeau as a breath of fresh air for scientists is not simply a hyperbolic partisan claim. Of utmost importance to scientists was Trudeau’s immediate reversal of the Harper government’s policy forbidding federally-funded scientists and other government officials from speaking to the press and public without legal hoops to jump through and permissions to obtain. There was also the restoration of the mandatory long-form census, to the hearty approval of social scientists everywhere.
However, the lack of suppression is not quite the same thing as progression. What precisely has Trudeau done beyond simply not hampering the efforts of scientists?
Most obvious and appreciable are the appointments made under Trudeau’s administration. As promised, the federal government created the non-partisan position of Chief Science Advisor and filled it with University of Ottawa’s Dr. Mona Nemer this past September. This was followed by the installation of Julie Payette this October — astronaut, engineer, and businesswoman — as Canada’s 29th Governor General.
The inclusion of scientists and other high-achieving people in government, however powerful their roles may actually be, demonstrates that the government is not simply paying lip-service to those who want experts contributing to the decision-making process.
Similar appreciation should be shown for the series of investments made by the federal government into research and green technology. With the $800-million-promise to a new Innovation Agenda fulfilled, the Liberal government has made it clear that they value the expansion of Canadian industries supported by science. Likewise, a number of environmentally-friendly decisions like the cancellation of the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the restoration of federal funding into ocean and freshwater research demonstrate a commitment to evidence-based policies.
From the above, it is clear that the realms of science and innovation were not mistaken to place their trust in Trudeau. But, in the spirit of empirical science, it is important to judge the administration not only on its successes, but on its failures as well.
There are several decisions and policies that I would call technical failures, where Trudeau made promises for science innovations but did not fully carry through with these promises. An example is the $50 million dollars given to the Industrial Research Assistance Program when $100 million was promised. Others, like the incomplete repeal of the ban on blood donation for LGBTQ men, appear only to be negotiated variants of original promises.
With all of this in mind, I find it is easy to conclude only one thing about the Prime Minister with certainty. Although Trudeau is a vast improvement on Harper with regard to science, he is not the torch-bearing messiah of science that some had hoped him to be, and that perhaps was implied during his campaign.
Yet total pessimism is undue. In the past two years Trudeau has clearly delineated his position as a supporter of scientific progress in Canada, with only the degree to which he is dedicated in question. In a world where anti-intellectualism is becoming increasingly prevalent in democratic governments, scientists — and the public alike — should be thankful for the leadership we have, despite its flaws.