What Happened to Science?

5 minute read

By Jeff Kinder, Executive Director, Science and Innovation and Rhonda Moore, Practice Lead, Science and Innovation

In reflecting on the federal election and the largely content-free campaign we just experienced, one might reasonably ask, “What happened to science?” Although it can be argued that climate change was the dominant election issue, and science is a key input to climate action, science was clearly not a campaign focus in its own right.

This is in sharp contrast to the 2015 federal election campaign. Leading up to the campaign, the scientific community was keenly concerned about the state of science in Canada. Unease with the Harper Government’s treatment of government science led to a rare show of solidarity and advocacy when scientists marched on Parliament Hill to protest the “death of evidence.”

The opposition parties saw their chance and made science a campaign issue. The New Democrats called for a new Parliamentary Science Advisor. The Liberals went further, giving significant space in their platform to a “Stand Up for Science” agenda. The agenda included commitments to create a Chief Science Officer, to “unmuzzle” government scientists, thus allowing them to speak freely to the public, and to advance “open science” by improving access to government-funded science.

Fast forward to the 2019 election: science has enjoyed much less profile. This despite the fact that research, science, and innovation are critical for Canada to grow our economy and address the big societal challenges we face: opioid addiction, climate change, job displacement. In addition, artificial intelligence, gene editing and other disruptive technologies are here to stay. Canada’s new government will have to determine how best to capitalize on these innovations and how to regulate them in the public interest.

What can Canadians expect from the new government regarding science? The Liberals’ campaign platform is one indicator of their priorities (although this can serve only as a partial indicator as they adjust to the realities of a minority government). In the 84-page campaign document, the words “science” and “research” each appear only a handful of times, although we might consider implicit support of science and research in other areas. (Curiously, the Liberals make no reference to science in the list of major accomplishments during their first mandate.)

The greatest emphasis on science is found, not surprisingly, in the chapter on climate change and protecting the environment. The platform indicates that the Liberals will convene a group of scientists, economists and other experts to recommend a path to a net-zero society. They will ensure that conservation efforts – including safe, clean freshwater – are grounded in science and Indigenous knowledge. They will increase funding for marine science and the fight against invasive species.

The Liberal platform emphasizes the need for science to deliver on the party’s health priorities, committing an additional $30 million to research and a long-term plan to address pediatric cancer. The Liberals promise to create a National Institute for Women’s Health Research and to work with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to integrate diversity factors to improve women’s healthcare. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and CIHR will enjoy more funding for “studies on race, diversity and gender in Canada.” And there is a commitment to “look for opportunities for increased collaboration between our talented scientists, researchers, and innovators and those in other G7 countries and advanced economies.”

Less obvious is how the Liberals plan to use science to help drive technological innovation. They commit to creating a new technology commercialization fund to give natural resource producers “an advantage in the clean economy” and fund incentives to develop zero-emission clean technologies, but offer few specifics. In foreign policy, the Liberals want Canada to “take a leadership role in ensuring the ethical use of new technology, by developing and supporting international protocols to ban the development and use of fully autonomous weapons systems.”

Although there are no references to the role the Chief Science Advisor might play going forward, there are indications that public policy will be based on scientific evidence. For example, in a section speaking to LGBTQ2 issues, the platform comes out strongly against conversion therapy as “scientifically discredited” and “not founded in science.” And in a section on Parliamentary reform, there is a reference to increasing research support to Parliamentary committees. Presumably this would mean beefing up the Library of Parliament research service. These and one other reference imply a continuing commitment to “evidence-based” decision-making.

So, what do we take from the Liberal campaign platform? Science is there, but you have to look for it. Is this concerning?

Since the post-WWll period, science (in virtually every OECD country, including Canada) has benefitted from an unwritten social contract that offered funding in exchange for societal improvements. Scientists have delivered those benefits in many ways, not the least of which include: Canadians are living longer, we enjoy healthier diets, and we have increasingly cleaner and more efficient energy sources.

The last decade has been a turbulent time for science. Actions of the Harper Government shook the foundation of the social contract for science, calling into question the role, function and value of the scientific enterprise. In response, scientists mobilized to demonstrate the value they bring to society. In effect, belief in science became a political and sometimes divisive topic of conversation and debate. According to some, the actions of the Trudeau Government under their last mandate would be seen as a successful campaign to recognize the role and value of science.

At the same time, there remain opportunities for the next government to embrace new approaches such as inclusive innovation, responsible research, and the interweaving of Indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge, to think differently and more creatively about how we advance science and innovation and develop sound evidence for decision-making.

Join us on November 12 for the next IOG Policy Crunch on “Renegotiating the Social Contract between Science and Society”. Rob Annan and Rees Kassen will join the authors in exploring these issues and where Canada is heading in science and innovation.

About the author

Jeff Kinder

Jeff Kinder

Executive Director - Science and Innovation

Jeff has over 30 years of experience in government science, technology and innovation policy in the US and Canada. His US experience includes the National Science Foundation, the National Academies and the Naval Research Laboratory.

In Canada, Jeff has worked at Industry Canada, Natural Resources Canada and the Council of Science and Technology Advisors (CSTA). In 2014, he supported the Knox Panel on Government Science and Technology. Most recently, he led the Federal S&T Secretariat supporting the Minister of Science, the Deputy Minister Champion for Federal Science and related initiatives, including the Federal S&T Infrastructure Initiative (now Laboratories Canada). Jeff is currently on interchange with the Institute on Governance.

At the University of Ottawa, Jeff is a Fellow of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP) and Adjunct at the Telfer School of Management. Jeff is a board member of the Canadian Science Policy Centre and a member of the Advisory Council of the Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellows program.

He is co-editor with Paul Dufour of A Lantern on the Bow: A History of the Science Council of Canada and its Contributions to the Science and Innovation Policy Debate (Invenire, 2018). He holds a PhD in public policy, a Master’s in science, technology and public policy, and a BS in physics.

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