Don't opt out: click here to learn more about our work.

Because it’s 2019

Selfies aren’t cutting it anymore — why youth voters are abandoning Trudeau

Because it’s 2019

Justin Trudeau was the perfect millennial magnet. He promised “real change,” navigated Instagram with ease, and knew some killer party tricks. The Liberals branded Trudeau as a rebellious reformer: the fiery underdog who would reignite Ottawa and bounce the boring, stale Conservatives from office.

But by packaging Trudeau as such, the Liberals have gradually alienated the party’s youth base — and fallen into the same trap US President Barack Obama did seven years ago.

In 2015, Trudeau’s charisma made young Canadians swoon. According to Abacus Data, 45 per cent of Canadians aged 18-25 voted Liberal. In the aftermath of his victory, Trudeau’s popularity continued to climb. One month after the election, Nanos reported that over half of young voters, defined as 18- 29, preferred Trudeau as prime minister.

The selfies, smiles, and promises kept gushing, and over the next year, Trudeau’s support remained consistent and strong, peaking at 61 per cent. The prime minister even appointed himself as Minister of Youth, formalizing his relationship with young people.

But three years later, almost one-third of young voters have abandoned him. Now, only 28 per cent choose Trudeau as their prime minister of choice.

Trudeau’s downfall was inevitable. As Obama’s trajectory illustrates, any reformer with a platform anchored in hope and change can garner votes the first time around, but once they go up for re-election, the rhetoric doesn’t click. Voters are jaded and popularity slides.

Take Obama: after record-setting engagement in the 2008 election, the number of voters aged 18-29 — a solid, loyal base for the president — declined by 1.8 million in 2012. Obama’s young, energetic supporters were tired of it all.

During the campaign, university officials reported “muted atmospheres” on campus. Paul Ryan, Republican Vice-President nominee for the opposing ticket, quipped that “college graduates [were] staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can get going with life.”

Obama couldn’t stir young people like he did in 2008; his inspiration had dried up. And now, Trudeau has stumbled into the same predicament: the selfies and smiles aren’t connecting as solidly as they did four years ago.

Instead of inspiring change, the prime minister may be cultivating apathy. This ranges from issues of Indigenous rights to climate change. For instance, although Trudeau removed Canada’s “objector status” to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould asserted that the government cannot implement the declaration “word for word.” In a fitting display, two Dalhousie University students recently confronted Trudeau about this issue midway through a selfie.

Trudeau also broke his promise to reform the electoral system, maintaining the first-past-the-post system that favours big parties like the Liberals. He’s also balked on his pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies in the medium-term.

The list goes on. This summer, Trudeau ignored calls from his Youth Council to suspend the government’s buyout of Kinder Morgan. Current and former members of the council declared Trudeau’s decision an “immense disappointment,” and urged the prime minister to reconsider.

The Office of the Prime Minister responded — with more than a splash of condescension — by stating that “it is heartening to see young Canadians engage on political issues that affect them and become involved in the democratic process.” When this cheap, preloaded duckspeak acts as the default response, Trudeau’s fall from grace starts to make a lot more sense.  

The literature on voting behaviour could have predicted the declines of both Trudeau and Obama. Dr. Heather Bastedo, president of Public Square Research, writes that “older voters are moved by the capacity of leaders to represent their interests, whereas younger voters care about what those same leaders symbolize or stand for.”

For young people, values matter more. Big fiscal decisions concerning taxes, health care, or child benefits don’t matter as much. As such, young voters tend to prioritize post-material values and flock to progressive, inspiring leaders.

In Why Youth Vote: Identity, Inspirational Leaders and Independence, Dr. Bobbi Gentry writes that candidates like Obama and Trudeau are “more likely to turn out youth voters based on the characteristic of inspiration.” Gentry goes on to say that “by offering hope, creating new politics, and acting against the status quo, an inspirational candidate [can] create higher turnout among 18- to 24- year-olds.”

This was the case with Trudeau’s initial bid: 58 per cent of newly-eligible voters came out to vote in 2015, an increase of 17.7 points over 2011. It’s no wonder: certain buzzwords and messages, like “feelings of hope, and promises of change” tend to resonate with these sorts of young voters. The Liberal Party’s platform was aptly entitled “real change,” and as Obama himself said of Trudeau during a joint press conference, Trudeau “campaigned on a platform of hope and of change.”

Obama’s assessment was on-brand four years ago and dovetailed with Trudeau’s image. However, Trudeau is now inside the tent: weathered by the demands of incumbency, and the day-to-day drudgery of actually running the country, most of Trudeau’s appeal has been snuffed out. Over two-thirds of young voters would agree. Trudeau has to reorient himself, ditch the hollow rhetoric, and start fulfilling promises if he wants to lure back his base.

The next federal election will occur in 2019, this year. Millennials constitute the biggest chunk of eligible voters, numbering 9.5 million countrywide, and withering interest among young voters could jeopardize Trudeau’s run for another term. It’s up to the Liberals to acknowledge and correct this before Trudeau begins to symbolize the very opposite of what he stood for in 2015.

Ted Fraser is a third-year International Relations student at Victoria College.

Federal budget’s $3.2 billion investment is a win for science

More research funding means more student research opportunities

Federal budget’s $3.2 billion investment is a win for science

On February 27, the Liberal government announced the federal budget, which includes a $3.2 billion investment in scientific research over the next five years.

A fund of $1.7 billion will go toward research granting councils — the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council — and $1.3 billion will be used to fund overhead expenses like research infrastructure, laboratories, and supplies.

Additionally, the budget proposes the formation of a new tri-council fund that will spearhead research that is internationally and interdisciplinarily based.

This large investment was driven considerably by the Naylor Report, Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, led by U of T President Emeritus David Naylor and commissioned by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan in 2016. The Naylor Report outlined 35 recommendations for the government to implement in order to better support scientific endeavors, including a $1.3 billion increase for research granting councils by 2022.

Though Budget 2018 does not meet all criteria outlined by the Naylor Report, it is evident that the government listened to scientists and took note of the Support the Report campaign led by U of T last year.

“The government did send a very positive signal to the scientific community, and provided for increased and longer-term stability to research funding going forward,” said Bryan Stewart, Vice-Principal of Research at UTM. “This is very welcome news.”

According to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, this investment is the single largest in investigator-led fundamental research in Canadian history. Morneau also said that the investment will help spur new industries and careers in Canada.

“Federal research grants have a huge impact on any individual researcher’s ability to supervise and train students of all levels,” said Stewart. “Any uptick in research funding will allow for more student research opportunities, and unfortunately, any downturn in research funding has the opposite effect.”

Additionally, the government plans to invest $210 million over five years in the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) Program. This CRC investment also aims to support talented early-career researchers and diversify its nominees to include more female researchers and researchers from underrepresented groups.

Only 28 per cent of Research Chairs at major universities are women, and they are typically at the bottom of CRC’s funding tiers. The budget aims to address federal sector gender pay inequity through proactive legislation. On average, a woman earns $0.87 for every dollar a man earns.

The budget also addresses inclusivity: $25 million has been allotted to support Indigenous research and researchers from minority groups so that they are better represented.

“Fundamental research explores the basis for why things are, and applied research tends to focus on how to use fundamental knowledge to make things work,” explained Ulrich Krull, the Principal of UTM. “Economic impact is largely tied to success in making things work, but this has no traction unless there is understanding of what needs to be done and there are skilled people available to creatively solve problems.”

While the reaction to the scientific funding allocation of this budget has been overwhelmingly positive, some have criticized the government’s inattention to the slow return on investment correlated with fundamental research, calling the investment an unwise way to spend tax dollars.

Funding for the Climate Change and Atmospheric Research program has not been renewed and will end this year. This lack of funding will halt progress on research in the Arctic.

Despite concerns and a few gaps, Canada’s scientific community has rejoiced over the budget and that the government listened to the community’s concerns over lagging research and funding for investigator-led fundamental research.

“Overall, this budget sends a clear signal that the federal government understands that universities have a unique positioning to drive social, economic and cultural growth,” said Krull.

Challenging the power of Trudeau’s positive press

In conversation with students, The Varsity’s Associate Comment Editor sheds light on the Prime Minister’s many inconsistencies

Challenging the power of Trudeau’s positive press

While scrolling through Twitter, flipping through news channels, or partaking in conversations, the topic of Donald Trump is one that appears to permeate all aspects of vocation and vacation. Evidently, there are a whole host of reasons why his behaviours, policies, and positions pique the interest of the public; he is an absurd man with an absurd amount of power. However, as Canadians, focusing on the 24-hour circus put on by our closest neighbours often pulls us away from engaging critically with our own government representatives.

Since his appointment in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has dazzled Canadians and foreigners alike with his good looks and refreshing political stances. In the early days of his tenure as Prime Minister, memes pertaining to Trudeau’s attractiveness and virility flooded the internet, with BuzzFeed documenting a few of the more salacious posts. When he responded to inquiries about his gender-balanced cabinet with, “Because it’s 2015,” the world took pause to revel in the majesty of such a forward-thinking leader, and even Emma Watson tapped out a tweet in support of the Prime Minister and his nation. Though his reputation is occasionally dented by controversies such as ‘nannygate,’ ‘elbowgate,’ or his recent ‘peoplekind’ faux-pas, in the eyes of many, Trudeau gets out of most scandals without any permanent damage.

Naturally, I found myself curious as to just how Justin Trudeau is managing such a routine: he appears to be skating past severe, career-shaping criticism at every turn by wooing the world. On a quest for answers, I spoke with three students about the Prime Minister and gathered their thoughts on his performance as the leader of our country so far.

The students each had a particular point of criticism for Trudeau. Ayesha Tak, a fourth-year Sociology student, critiqued the Prime Minister’s statement on World Mental Health Day last year that called for mental health support, pointing out that he has yet to address the suicide epidemic among Indigenous communities in the north. Zeahaa Rehman, a third-year Linguistics and Professional Writing and Communication student, cited the Prime Minister’s #WelcomeToCanada tweet posted in response to President Trump’s travel ban last year, mentioning that it made little sense in the wake of the refugee cap taking effect in Canada at the time. Tak and Rehman’s concerns highlight Trudeau’s tendency to speak loudly about the things he believes in while doing little to uphold or enforce those values in a real way.

Concerns about the ethics of the Prime Minister’s actions were also raised. Natalie Petra, a fourth-year student studying Ethics, Society and Law; Peace, Conflict and Justice; and Equity Studies, and the President of the York-Simcoe NDP Riding Association, commented on what she perceived as the deeply disturbing nature of Trudeau’s trip to the Aga Khan’s island on a private plane, arguing that this decision put the public in an uncomfortable place because no one will ever know what deals were or were not made during that trip.

These flaws in the Prime Minister’s image often get overlooked or buried due to a couple of complementary factors: negative press for Donald Trump and positive press for Trudeau. Tak believes Trump’s presidency has largely contributed to Trudeau’s infallible status in the political sphere. “We do give him a pass because of Trump,” suggested Tak. “We compare a lot of politicians to Trump, and we go, ‘Oh at least they’re not Trump,’ which is setting the bar very low.”

Petra, on the other hand, perceives Trudeau’s popularity to be more reflective of the strong relationship Liberals and Trudeau himself have with the media. “If you’ve ever gotten to hear the Prime Minister speak at a live event or talk to him face-to-face — which I have done both — he’s very unwilling to commit to a position,” explained Petra. “When you’re a little bit wishy-washy on a position, it’s really easy to get that positive PR. And that positive PR helps get the Prime Minister more traction and more popularity with Canadians at the end of the day.”

In my view, a combination of those two factors has led to the current situation where many Canadians are willing to forgive our Prime Minister for anything. However, like any great rhetorical tactic, a standardized noncommittal stance only works as long as nobody catches you. The public reaction to recent mishaps like ‘peoplekind’ show that the ‘Justin Trudeau, selfie prince’ veneer is rapidly chipping. And though Trudeau’s public image has certainly benefited from superficial tweets and curated photographs, people are now expecting him to show more consistency between press and policy.

Petra critiqued Trudeau’s claims of feminism by juxtaposing them with his many instances of non-feminist behaviour. For all the positive press around Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet, for instance, it was revealed that five females were being paid less than their male counterparts. Moreover, during the ‘nannygate’ controversy, when it became clear that Canadians would be footing the bill for the two Trudeau nannies, the Prime Minister’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, received a lot of gendered abuse as a mother who appeared to be taking advantage of taxpayers. Petra argues that despite his claims of feminism, Trudeau never thought to clarify that the nannies provided just as much support for him as for his wife.

“It’s difficult to consider yourself a feminist when you’re not willing to put the substantive action into it,” said Petra. “It’s a lot more than just standing up and saying, ‘Because it’s 2015’ or going to the UN and saying, ‘I am a feminist.’”

Rehman summed up the disconnect between Trudeau’s words and actions very simply: “A lot of what he does isn’t in tune with what he says.”

The time has come to focus on what our nation needs from our Prime Minister, and to stop marvelling at the madness going on beneath us. We should continue to analyze what Trudeau says, and ensure that it matches his actions. We should not rely on ignorant power players south of the border as the benchmark for our Prime Minister’s success, or on fluffy articles focusing exclusively on our Prime Minister’s looks and charisma. Students, with their breadth of knowledge on internet and social media sensationalism, have the power to challenge superficiality and demand something real.

Jenisse Minott is a third-year student at UTM studying Communications, Culture, Information, and Technology and Professional Writing and Communication. She is The Varsity’s Associate Comment Editor.

A prime minister for progress

Reflections on Trudeau’s promises to science

A prime minister for progress

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.

Hart House Debate panel tackles Trudeau’s first two years in office

Panelists praise PM, condemn failure to deliver on electoral reform

Hart House Debate panel tackles Trudeau’s first two years in office

On October 10, four guests of the Hart House Debates & Dialogue Committee sat on a panel discussing their views on Justin Trudeau’s first two years as Prime Minister of Canada. The guests included Karim Bardeesy, Dr. Mel Cappe, Dr. Donna Dasko, and Toronto Star columnist Tim Harper, who moderated the event.

The panelists mostly spoke positively about Trudeau, complimenting his ability to create change and his positive reputation among other leaders and among Canadians.

Dasko, the former Senior Vice President of Environics Research Group Ltd., pointed out that a lot of polls regarding Trudeau are inconsistent. She claimed some polls show that Canadians lean toward the Liberal Party in the next election, while some polls have the Conservative Party leading.

Dasko added that another measure of a Prime Minister’s success is to explore their ability to deliver on promises made during their campaigns. She noted that out of Trudeau’s 226 promises made in 2015, 131 of them have been kept, or are in progress, while 54 of them have not been acted on. The remaining 36 have been outright broken, most of them regarding electoral reform.

Dasko cited Trudeau’s promise to run on a deficit, his aggressive approach to the environment, and the upcoming legalization of marijuana as examples of Trudeau’s ability to deliver change, which she said was another way to measure the success of a Prime Minister.

“I think the implementation is an issue,” Dasko told The Varsity, discussing Trudeau’s ability to effect change. “When I was talking about change, I was trying to emphasize what I see as a very significant policy change from the previous government. The real test of that will be the ability of the government to implement these changes. So it’s not just passing legislation, it’s actually implementing them.” 

Cappe, the former clerk of the Privy Council of Canada, and most recently Canada’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom, pointed out that Trudeau is now the oldest among the party leaders. New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer are both 38 years old. Cappe also stated that if he were to assess Trudeau as he would a 4th year university student, he would score around 80 per cent.

Cappe stated that Trudeau did well on most of the criteria he used in his assessment, which included how Trudeau has changed how Canadians view themselves, how they are viewed abroad, how he left the Canadian economy, what he has done for human rights and security, and whether he could win another election. Cappe’s major concern was Trudeau’s broken promise to deliver on electoral reform.

Bardeesy, a former Director of Policy to the Premier of Ontario, started by stating that the Liberal Party is planning for multiple terms. He pointed out Trudeau’s struggles with NAFTA renegotiations. However, he sees this as a missed opportunity to explain the benefits of trade to Canadians. Bardeesy said that Trudeau does well in representing Canadian identity, and other leaders are competing in this way. He believes that Trudeau will possibly receive backlash in the future, regarding a possible terrorist attack, and focusing too much on Indigenous issues.

The event had a high turnout, with many people asking detailed questions. The speakers were impressed by the students’ interest in the topic.

“What’s exciting is when you see young people coming out to talk about politics, which can be a really boring topic,” Dasko stated.

When partisanship overshadows equality

Twisting 'Elbowgate' into a gendered incident holds true feminist issues in contempt

When partisanship overshadows equality

Few proceedings in the House of Commons have influenced public discourse as much as the May 18 events. During a regular sitting of the House with an impending vote on assisted dying legislation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau crossed the aisle to pull Conservative Whip Gord Brown toward his seat, in an effort to speed up the beginning of the vote. In the process, Trudeau elbowed New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament (MP) Ruth-Ellen Brosseau in the chest. Outcry from members, extensive media coverage, and the public’s response have led to this event being dubbed ‘Elbowgate.’

Many individuals, including prominent NDP MPs, have made the claim that elbowing Brosseau and subsequently causing her to miss the vote was by nature a gendered issue. Some went so far to say that Trudeau’s actions were reminiscent of instances of violence against women, and that he made the House of Commons an unsafe space for women to work.

Trudeau’s elbowing of Brosseau was, by all means, rude and unnecessary. It showed the Prime Minister’s impatience for proceedings to begin and his entitled attitude within the House. However, calling it misogynistic or anti-feminist misses the lack of intent on Trudeau’s part to harm Brosseau. It dismisses and overshadows his intentional actions towards Brown. Worst of all, it detracts from instances of actual violence towards women and the inequality they do often face at home and in the workplace.

The video of the proceedings shows that Trudeau was only attempting to physically pull Brown towards his seat. It shows that the contact made with Brosseau was almost certainly accidental, because Trudeau’s aim was to get Brown in his chair and to start the vote.

Fixating on Trudeau’s treatment of Brosseau discounts the lack of decorum the Prime Minister exhibited toward Brown and the entire Parliamentary voting process. It overshadows the deliberate breach of physical barriers towards an opposition member — Brown, not Brosseau. Viewing Trudeau’s actions through a gendered lens has detracted from his actual wrongdoing of attempting to physically coerce an opposition whip.

Physical violence in the workplace, in any context, is unequivocally wrong. That being said, Trudeau was immediate and clear in his apology to Brosseau, stating that he did not mean to harm her and that the physical harm committed against her was entirely accidental. It was clear from the video and Trudeau’s subsequent actions that the intent to harm Brosseau was not present.

On the other hand, Trudeau’s reluctance to apologize to Brown may indicate that he felt justified in those deliberate physical actions. The bulk of Trudeau’s actions were targeted against a male member of Parliament, which a gendered approach to the situation overlooks.

Hyper-partisan comparisons like those made by NDP MPs Niki Ashton and Brigitte Sansoucy — which linked Trudeau’s accidental elbowing of Brosseau to workplace and domestic violence — serve only to trivialize the severity of problems faced by hundreds of thousands of women in this country.

Treating the physical harm done to Brosseau as more newsworthy and malicious than that done to Brown perpetuates the stereotype that women are inherently weaker and more fragile — that they should be protected even in settings where they are said to be equal.

Portraying women as victims in situations is not the solution to equality. It may increase public attention towards these issues, but it also creates a plethora of long-term problems, stemming from the fact that the differential treatment of women, once again, takes the idea of equality out of the picture.

Linking problems of gendered violence to an accidental and highly-publicized case is unacceptable. It redirects attention away from the struggles of actual victims of gendered violence and the platform they have to express the issues they go through. While partisan uproar over the incident delayed proceedings, Teta Bayan, a temporary foreign worker making a living as a nanny, lost the opportunity to speak on behalf of thousands of others in her position, in the hopes of improving working conditions.

By using Elbowgate as a gendered chit against the Prime Minister, the NDP has set themselves back further from their goal of achieving equality. Hyper-partisan comparisons like those made by NDP MPs Niki Ashton and Brigitte Sansoucy — which linked Trudeau’s accidental elbowing of Brosseau to workplace and domestic violence — serve only to trivialize the severity of problems faced by hundreds of thousands of women in this country.

Equally harmful are the partisan-fuelled assertions that Trudeau’s actions toward Brosseau discount his claims of being a feminist and invalidate the efforts he has made to promote the equality of women within the political sphere, like instituting a gender-equal cabinet. Both types of partisan statements serve to create the precedent that women’s issues should be sensationalized when necessary, rather than treated with care, legitimacy, and respect.

Yes, Trudeau’s actions were rude and lacking in decorum. However, viewing the issue through a gendered lens for partisan purposes works against the federal government’s shared goal: equality for women in the workplace and all other spheres.

Daryna Kutsyna is a fourth-year student at Trinity College studying International Relations and History. She is the president of Equal Voice U of T; the views expressed here are her own.

Is Canadian science back?

The federal government has promised to improve transparency and funding of Canadian research; if done right, it could be a pivotal moment for scientists

Is Canadian science back?

In late 2015, Kirsty Duncan, Member of Parliament (MP) for the riding of Etobicoke North, was appointed Minister of Science in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.

Duncan has no direct predecessor to emulate. The position was introduced by Brian Mulroney in 1990 and existed until 1995, when Jean Chrétien nixed it and added the new title of Minister of Industry to his cabinet. Stephen Harper reintroduced a Science and Technology portfolio to his cabinet, but demoted the person in this position to Minister of State, which is a lower cabinet rank. It was therefore a significant change when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Duncan with a full mandate. The move seemed to reflect the Liberal Part of Canada’s campaign promise to restore the voice and funding given to Canadian researchers and scientists.

With $1.1 billion in research funding granted at U of T in 2013–2014 — 31 per cent of which came from federal agencies — there is no doubt that the university is a major player in Canadian research. It educates thousands of students hoping to participate in research each year. Many from the U of T community will be watching as the new federal government attempts to change the political climate surrounding research in Canada.

Money and ‘muzzling’

Under Stephen Harper’s government, scientists across Canada reported a variety of challenges related to the government and their work. A common grievance was the reduction in federal research funding to various  programs and facilities. In January 2014, CBC News reported that 2000 government scientists had been laid off within five years, and that research in climate change, water quality, and other areas had seen dramatic financial cutbacks. 

In recent years, Canadian researchers have also expressed concerns over political censorship in the publication of data. The Harper government was accused of preventing scientists employed by the federal government from sharing information that did not align with the goals of the administration. Public scientists’ interactions with the media were carefully controlled by government media managers.

In particular, climate change research conducted by government scientists allegedly did not reach the general public. Some groups, including the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, called these practices ‘scientific muzzling.’

The new government seems eager to distance itself from these criticisms and to prioritize transparent scientific research. When asked about the goals of the new Ministry of Science, Duncan said, “The goal is to return science to its rightful place and to return science to its rightful place in government. We have two ministers with science in the title, and it I think it shows the importance this government places on science.”

Duncan is a scientist first and isn’t afraid to admit that. She is a U of T geography and anthropology alumnus, holds a PhD in geography, and is known within the community for her research on historical epidemics. Her work focused on understanding the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, as the world worried about an outbreak of another global flu in the late 1990s. 

Duncan taught meteorology, climatology, and climate change at the University of Windsor from 1993 to 2000. Her research led to the publication of a book called Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist’s Search for a Killer Virus in 2003. She entered politics in 2008 and won her riding, even as the federal Liberal Party failed to win nationally.   

It is Duncan’s opinion that the government should not influence scientists’ communications with the public. “Scientists should be able to speak freely in an official capacity where they have direct responsibility or expertise, or scientific and technical matters related to their work. That’s what science is about. Scientists share their work; they have to be able to do that. Part of my mandate is to ensure that government scientists can talk freely about their work, that government science is made available to Canadians and that we have this evidence base to inform decision making,” she said. 

The Conservative Party of Canada maintains that its stance on science has been fair. Marilyn Gladu, MP for the riding of Sarnia-Lambton and Conservative Party of Canada science critic, said, “My view is that scientists are free to speak about their work, but they do not speak for the government on issues of science policy.”

Gladu also defended the Conservatives’ record on science. “Canadian Science never left the main stage while the Conservatives were in power. A lot of very positive things happened, in fact, like a Canadian research team finding a cure for Ebola, that just simply never got a lot of media attention,”she said.

The tension between government regulation and scientific expression was enough to prompt students to speak out about the right to free expression of scientific findings. At U of T, a group known as Students for the Right to Know was started in response to the alleged muzzling of scientists by the Harper government. The group, led by Emma Pask, continues to advocate for the freedom to disseminate scientific findings. 

Pask felt that awareness of the importance of transparency in research has increased. “More professors are presenting their work through alternative avenues, instead of having it written up by public relations representatives or journalists, as dictated by the mandates for government funded research [under Stephen Harper].” To ensure the free expression of their work, Pask said, “Academics are creating more direct ways of sharing their work by starting blogs and appearing on shows, such as TED Talks, to ensure the transparency that their work requires and to secure the proper communication of the scope of their research.”

These measures may no longer be necessary if the new government begins to dismantle the policies put in place by the Harper government, but the lengths researchers go to secure free expression of their findings is representative of how important transparency is to Canadian researchers. 

The ‘Gross Research Product’

The budget allocates an additional $30 million for NSERC and CIHR, and an additional $16 million for SSHRC. As well, an additional $19 million has been granted to the Research Support Fund, a fund “to support the indirect costs borne by post-secondary institutions in undertaking federally sponsored research.” The total increase in funding for research is $141 million in 2016-2017. In total, the final budgets will rise to $1.12 billion for NSERC, $1.03 billion for the CIHR, and $720 million for the SSHRC. Smaller increases were provided to other institutions, like Genome Canada and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

While more generous than previous budgets, an increase of $141 million dollars does not spread well over an entire country and is not likely to significantly improve the ability of researchers to obtain grants for their work

Canada’s research and development expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) remains significantly lower than those of many other top research countries. In 2013, Canada’s per capita GDP spent on research was 1.62 per cent; Israel’s was 4.21 per cent. France’s expenditure on research was 2.23 per cent of GDP in 2013. 

Kennedy Stewart, MP for the riding of Burnaby South and New Democratic Party science critic, thought more should be done to improve research in Canada. “Stephen Harper and the Conservatives undermined scientific research in Canada by reducing funding, firing and muzzling government scientists, and eliminating key tools such as the long form census. As a result, our global reputation took a severe hit and we dropped on most key comparative tables concerning scientific output and innovation,” he said. 

He added that the increases in research funding under the Liberals failed to meet his ideals: “In a recent letter to the new science minister I asked Dr. Duncan to increase funding to our tri-councils by $1.5 billion over the next four years and to tie these increases to inflation to [guarantee] adequate funding over the long term. While a good start, the recent Liberal budget fell short of these goals.”

While researchers would like greater funding, governments are understandably constrained by their budgets. The scarcity of government funding begs the question: should governments prioritize research that is likely to be economically productive? 

Duncan said that the 2016 budget delivers on a mandate to increase funding for “fundamental” science, rather than just research for commercial gain. “Under the framework of the previous government, [researchers] felt that funds were being tied, that there had to be a commercialization aspect to their research to get funding. The example I’ll give is with SSHRC. Between 2000 and 2006, there was 0% tied funding. In 2006, it was 9%. Today it stands at 37%. We heard repeatedly that [increases in research funding] should be unfettered, and [these increases are] unfettered money,” she explained.

Dr. Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice president of research and innovation, noted that U of T researchers enter into funding agreements that guarantee their ability to publish their results and therefore have not been subject to censorship by the government. He hopes for Duncan and the Liberals to implement improvements to the process of applying for funding, which can sometimes be burdensome. 

“Right now… in order [for researchers] to maintain their research programs, their labs, and their support, their graduate students, post docs and so on have to write multiple applications for the same project to different organizations,” he explained. Goel wants this process to come under the Ministry of Science review that was also announced in the 2016 budget. He also wishes that the government can improve access to funding for new scholars and increase international collaborations.

Dr. Edward Andrew, professor emeritus of the U of T political science department is in favour of research for the sake of research. “My view is that governments should be strong supporters of research, even if it is not economically productive,” he said.

He warned of what can happen if governments fail to support research, regardless of their potential payoff. Andrew predicted, “The alternative to government funding is that all research will be funded and controlled by capitalist corporations. To avoid researchers becoming lackeys of corporations or governments, a multiplicity of patrons or funding agencies is essential.”

Meanwhile, funding agencies have been struggling in recent years. In 2013, both the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy were shut down due to a lack of funding.

While research funding rarely improves the national bottom-line immediately, research should not be undervalued. Rock-solid research is needed to maintain Canada’s position on the global stage. National research and development strengthens our medical care and often leads to new ways to make complicated procedures more effective and cost-efficient.

The National Research Council (NRC) funds a number of medical technologies that improve the way our federally-funded physicians conduct life-saving procedures. Government funding of globally-renowned Canadian health non-profits, like Grand Challenges Canada, also saves thousands of lives abroad. The Defence Research and Development Canada agency conducts important research on how to improve military technology.

While these investments may not pay off immediately, it’s important that a global leader like Canada takes the necessary risk of investing in research, regardless of the outcome.

Goel echoed these sentiments: “Government[s]… can fund fundamental research without having to make the case that it’s going to be economically productive.” Furthermore, he made it clear that governments have a role in funding research for the “social good.”

“[Governments fund] research for which no single entity on its own, particularly a private sector organization, would necessarily invest in because it’s so fundamental [that] it doesn’t lead directly to products and commercialization,” continued Goel. “So, [the] particularly important role for government[s] is to fund the research that nobody else or nowhere else in society would be funded.”

Goel also said that the importance of research in the humanities should not be forgotten or ignored. “I think another part of this [that is] really important for the university is research in humanities and in the social sciences, [which] quite often [are] not directly related to economic activity in the way that people think about it.” noted Goel. In particular, he drew attention to the role the social sciences have in national security. “It is fundamental to our society and understanding social forces within society. Understanding why, for example, people might get radicalized… If we took an economic lens, [that research] might not get funded, [which] can often end up being the most important for us as a society.”

While it is clear that the Liberal government is attempting to improve the Canadian research climate, it remains to be seen whether the measures they have proposed will be enough to realize substantial change. Duncan seems to be hopeful. She concluded, “I just hope that science is back, and that there is respect for science and scientists and the important work they do.”

Correction (April 5th, 2016): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the 2016 federal budget allocations for research. The Varsity regrets the errors.