Canadian Federal Election: If there were a science debate, what would I ask?

Katie Gibbs and Alana Westwood of Evidence for Democracy wrote a terrific piece in The Toronto Star a little while ago, We need a national debate on science: A question about science policy has never been asked at a federal leaders’ debate. Now more than ever that has to change.

Given the clear importance of science in our lives, why has a question about science policy never — not once — been asked in a federal leaders’ debate?


Perhaps it’s time for another first: a debate about the state and future of Canadian science. Once a world-leader in scientific research, recent decisions have eroded our science capacity and our international scientific reputation. It’s estimated that up to 5,000 federal scientists have lost their jobs, and over 250 research and monitoring programs and institutions have been closed. Our recently launched website called True North Smart and Free, documents dozens of examples of funding cuts to science, government scientists being silenced and policy decisions that ignore the best available evidence. This is essential public-interest science needed to protect Canadian’s health and safety, from food inspection to monitoring toxic chemicals in water.

I've chronicled the devastation that the current Conservative government has wrought on Canadian public science quite a bit over the last few years. Evidence for Democracy has recently published a terrific new site, True North Smart and Free that beautifully highlights what's gone on, telling a number of very compelling stories in significant depth. I've even started a post where I'm tracking the conversation that is happening around science during the election.

And it's an amazing and appalling roster of research funding cut or bound to industry partnerships, departmental budgets slashed, lab closures, library closures, scientists muzzled and fired, environmental deregulation, oil industry pandering, insults, harassment, demonization and much more. The toll is quite remarkable for a mere 10 years, with most in the last four since the Conservative majority. What took generations to build only took a few short years to disassemble.

So if a science debate did happen to take place among the major party leaders -- Gilles Duceppe, Stephen Harper, Elizabeth May, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau -- what would I ask them?

Canadian science has been devastated over the course of the last decade, from research twisted to meet industry needs, labs closed, scientists muzzled or fired, and environmental regulations scrapped to favour industry. And that's just a small part of the damage to evidence-based decision-making.

If you are Prime Minister after October 19, what would be your short, medium and long-term plan to restore Canadian government and publicly-funded science to what it was before and even to take it in new directions and reach for new heights.

Of course, it's not hard to imagine how Prime Minister Stephen Harper would answer the question. But I would be really interested to hear what the others have to say. Even if answers were forthcoming from the various parties' science and technology critics, that would be great too.

It's also not hard to imagine how an entire two-hour debate among the opposition leaders could essentially revolve around nothing but answering that question, teased apart into a bunch of mini-questions about the various kinds of damage done over the last decade to evidence-based decision-making about the environment, public health, demographics and so much more. Let's keep our fingers crossed that science will be an important part of one of the remaining debates or that even we could get a completely science-focused debate.

How could my question be reframed or reworded to make it more effective?

What question would you ask?

More like this

It has begun. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called an election for October 19, 2015, kicking off a marathon 11 week election campaign. The longest campaign since the 1870s, believe it or not. My patient readers may have noticed that over the last few years I've posted quite a bit about…
This is a brief chronology of the current Conservative Canadian government's long campaign to undermine evidence-based scientific, environmental and technical decision-making. It is a government that is beholden to big business, particularly big oil, and that makes every attempt to shape public…
2012 was a year of Open Access advocacy for me. I published a ton of posts that year generally around the loose theme of making the scholarly communications ecosystem fairer and more open. In 2013 I did a little of that too, for sure. But with a lot of the effects of the Conservative government's…
As I've extensively chronicled, Canadian government science had some pretty rough years under the government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But Canada has a new government, a new prime minister in Justin Trudeau and a new cabinet. Kirsty Duncan, an actual scientist who worked on the IPPC…

My question would be to ask how soon they plan to establish the national census, which is not directly science related, but upon the data from which much science depends. I would then ask if they would put forward a constitutional amendment embedding a regular census such that it could not be eliminated again at the whim of some order-in-council, in the way their census is mandated by the U.S. constitution. While I understand that there is going to be an immense amount of work to undo the damage the Tories have done to science, this would at least be a place to start.

By Robert Gauthier (not verified) on 21 Aug 2015 #permalink

Harper would reject the premise of your question, and wouldn't answer it. According to his MPs, scientists aren't muzzled, they've invested more into research, spin, spin, spin, etc.

One possible way to reword the question to be less accusatory and more 'neutral' sounding so Harper, in this very hypothetical debate, would at least try to spin things rather than reject the question altogether. So maybe....

Canadian science has changed over the course of the last decade, from research changed to meet industry needs, labs closed, the press having difficulty talking to scientists in a timely fashion, and environmental regulations changed to favour industry. And that’s just a small part of the changes in evidence-based decision-making.

If you are Prime Minister after October 19, what would be your short, medium and long-term plan for Canadian government and publicly-funded science to improve it and take it in new directions and reach for new heights.

Of course, science and evidence-based decision making has been badly damaged, twisted, ripped apart, set-back, etc. Horribly weep-with-despair so, and your original question is rather tame compared to the damage that has been done.

By Dan Andrews (not verified) on 21 Aug 2015 #permalink

Dan Andrews +1

I would ask ..when are you going to let real scientists in the discussion instead of continuously listening to NGOs from environmental groups?

Canada has some outstanding scientific talent. It used to have more. They need to invest heavily into restoring plant breeding programs, especially in specialty crops like grape, strawberry and blueberry, as well as continued investment in canola, grains and pulses. Canada has a unique opportunity to serve its citizens and expand export markets. Shortsighted cuts have taken world-class programs and put them years behind. Still, you have great people up there. Support them, and help programs grow.

By Kevin FOlta (not verified) on 24 Aug 2015 #permalink

I'd seek to reframe the question to include (what I feel is an important imperative) protecting against willful creation/promotion of a dangerous knowledge scarcity model (surviving data bound to industry etc interests). Whenever research knowledge is locked behind firewalls and paywalls creativity, innovation, and change are impeded. More so when sciences are involved.

By Leni Spooner (not verified) on 25 Aug 2015 #permalink