Science and Technology -- No Longer a Backbencher Issue

October 7, 2015
Steph Taylor
Physics and Astronomy Editor, Science Borealis

With less than two weeks to go until election day, this has been an unusual election. It's the longest in modern Canadian history. It's the closest three-way race in recent memory. And amidst all the traditional taxes-and-jobs campaigning, federal science has been a major sleeper issue of the campaign.

Science is far from a traditional election issue, and has become prominent only after nearly a decade of Harper government’s dismantling, restructuring, and silencing federal scientists and science-based departments. The list of cuts and closures is long and well documented, and scientists and citizens are calling for change throughout during this campaign. There have been two candidate debates about science and technology (links go to videos of the debates), both organized through universities by scientists, and there is a large slate of organizations that are pushing for voters to ask their candidates about their commitment to supporting science in Canada. But it's not just scientists and science-based organizations making this an election issue: Maclean's had an ongoing online poll which presented random pairs of policies and asked the reader to pick which they would rather see enacted. The option most consistently chosen was "Make government funded science available to the public," ahead of infrastructure funding, increasing CPP benefits, launching an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and national pharmacare. Clearly, it's not just academics who are unhappy with the current state of Canadian science.

There are two likely reasons why science has finally become an election issue. First, there have been sustained efforts by non-partisan groups including Evidence for Democracy and PIPSC to bring to light the drastically reduced capacity of federal science departments. While Evidence for Democracy was formed explicitly to advocate for evidence-based policy, PIPSC (the union representing many of the scientists who have borne the brunt of the cuts) has historically not agitated explicitly about federal policy. Organizing work by these groups and others has been critically important in both spreading the word that science has been under attack and also providing a rallying point for academics, scientists, and citizens. In particular, the Death of Evidence march and the Stand Up for Science rallies attached thousands of people from coast to coast, drew substantial media attention, and put the cuts to federal science squarely in the public eye. Their message has been underscored by the seemingly methodical scrapping of environmental regulatory legislation, and it's possible that science would be even more of an issue if many environmental groups did not feel pressured to keep quiet with regards to federal politics. Secondly, the Canadian public realizes how imperative dealing with climate change is becoming, and it's obvious that under Harper in particular, our federal environmental policies have made Canada an international laughing stock.

Regardless of what specifically pushed science to the fore of the political debate, it is unlikely that it will recede to the backbench any time soon. The groups that are calling for a reversal in federal policy are committed to holding the next government to account. Canadians continue to agitate for meaningful action to combat climate change. And as campaigns are increasingly run using microtargeting, issues that were once considered niche issues may be pushed with vigour if an identifiable sector of the voting public is thought to care strongly about them. Given that there is a widespread appetite for a renewed federal science policy, it is unlikely that science as a campaign issue is a one-election flash-in-the-pan.

This is good: as we as nation and a planet face the monumental task of adapting to a shifting climate, having robust science and technology policy is critical. Without the tools to understand and monitor our environment, we cannot act to make our natural resource-driven economy sustainable. Without an awareness of how climate change is impacting our neighbours, we are at a disadvantage in diplomatic discussions. Science and technology will light the path towards a sustainable and prosperous future. We need a federal government that uses evidence, not blind ideology, to set federal policy.