Which 2015 federal election platform offers to best policies for Canadian science and research?

Science and research in the 2015 election platforms

I read through all 318 pages of Conservative, Liberal, and NDP platform documents seeking to understand their different visions for science in Canada.

For the first time, science has become an election issue in Canada. In the 2015 federal election, political party platforms feature science and research commitments, major media outlets have covered science issues (e.g. Maclean’s, the Globe & Mail, CBC, Quirks & Quarks had a science debate), and advocacy groups are mobilizing public support for science. Science’s role in Canadian society is up for debate. Particularly now, after several years of policies aimed at limiting and narrowing the scope of how science fits into policy and government decisions.

All parties agree Canada needs to do more to foster innovation and the commercialization of research. For decades, Canada has failed to effectively capitalize on its strong research universities to foster innovative companies. The Conservative, NDP, and Liberal platforms commit Canada to investing in research that supports innovation generally, as well as the manufacturing, agriculture, and natural resources (e.g. forestry, mining, fisheries) sectors specifically. The NDP and Conservatives commit to supporting the space industry. Despite being equipped with Canada’s first astronaut, the Liberals don’t mention the Canadian Space Agency or the space industry.

Beyond innovation, platforms diverge.

The Conservatives view science narrowly, and treat it almost exclusively as a tool for economic development. As the Harper-appointed President of the National Research Council said a few years ago, “scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.” In essence, that is the Conservative platform on science.

Despite being the one science and research area the Conservatives paid attention to, private-sector R&D has worsened throughout the Harper years.

There are three exceptions to the Conservative’s singular emphasis on private-sector research needs. The Conservatives also pledge to fund “cutting-edge health research”, specifically targeting improvements to palliative care, cancer treatment, and the Canada Brain Research Fund. They would also continue to fund research into the root causes of terrorism. (A dramatic change of mind from a Prime Minister that once told Trudeau not to “commit sociology”.) Lastly, the Conservatives included a plainly worded vague commitment to provide “ongoing support for” the granting councils that fund most university research in Canada (NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR). This makes the recent editorial cartoon musing that the Conservatives wish to eliminate science altogether at least slightly exaggerated.

These Conservative platform pieces are laudable policies. However, much is missing.

Public interest science, designed to inform politicians and Canadians about pressing environmental, health, and social issues, is absent from the Conservative platform. However, their governing record offers insights into what role they think science should play in government policy. While in power, the Conservatives have dismissed the expertise of federal scientists as mere opinion, demonstrated a worrisome lack of scientific literacy (e.g. here, here, and here), cut research funding, fired thousands of public scientists, and muzzled government scientists. (Longer lists are available elsewhere.) There is no indication this pattern will change. Indeed, financial planning documents show that further cuts to government science programs are planned (e.g. Environment Canada resources will be cut annually).

The NDP and Liberal Party propose a more expansive role for science and evidence. Both platforms commit restoring the long-form census and increasing research funding. Both parties commit to making government data freely available. Both parties support allowing publicly-funded scientists to openly speak to the public and media about research results (a popular policy amongst Canadians, according to a Maclean’s poll). Both have committed to restoring environmental protections lost when the Fisheries Act was gutted and the Navigable Waters Protections Act was eliminated.

Significantly, and in contrast to the Conservatives, the NDP and Liberals propose creating institutions that would advise politicians of facts relevant to policy issues, and help inform government decisions with the best available evidence. To accomplish this, the NDP would create the Office of the Parliamentary Science Officer and a Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. These institutions would “ensure that our government always has access to the best possible scientific advice from experts in all fields.” The Liberals, meanwhile, promise to enhance Parliamentary committees with non-partisan research staff, and create a Chief Science Officer with a mandate to ensure government science is publicly available, scientists can speak freely and that scientific analysis is considered in government decisions. Our G7 partners all have science advisors. The U.S. has a well-resourced Office of Science and Technology Policy. It’s long past time that Canada catches up to the needs of 21st century policymaking.

If the Liberals and NDP find themselves in a minority Parliament, science offers fertile opportunities to find common ground. There are, however, differences between the NDP and Liberals.

The NDP platform mentions science and research the fewest times of all. However, they make substantial commitments. Similar to the Conservatives and Liberals, they would promote innovation and industrial/business-focused research. Uniquely, the NDP would create funding for women’s organizations and community-based health research. They also want to make it “easier for businesses to access government support for innovation, talent and R&D.” It is unclear what the NDP believe is lacking in the federal government’s literal concierge service for industrial research support.

The Liberal platform offers more to science and research than either the NDP or Conservatives. The Liberals offer specific commitments that repair some cuts to science under the Conservatives, including investments in freshwater research and the Experimental Lakes Area, enhancements to support for marine and ocean science and pollution monitoring, and funding for Canada Research Chairs in sustainable technology. These proposals don’t match the scale of losses incurred over the last decade. But they are a start.

The Liberals included a section devoted to “Evidence-Based Policy”, which includes general commitments similar to the NDP (e.g. “Government should base its policies on facts”) but also specific commitments and details which are unique. Not only would they restore the long-form census, they also commit to expanding data collection by Statistics Canada (e.g. “including detailed labour market information) and “make Statistics Canada fully independent.” The latter point is significant, and aims to prevent another instance of critical data becoming compromised by politics.

The Liberals also propose expanding entrepreneurship programs, clean technology research funds, and co-op placements for science, math, and engineering students.

Overall, in my view, the Liberal Party platform contains the best set of commitments to support science, use evidence in government decisions, and leverage Canada’s tremendous research talent for Canadians’ benefit.

I nonetheless hope that – no matter who forms the next government – Canada creates a respected and valued place for knowledge, data, and science. There are good ideas in all three platform documents. But it is action that will help Canadians. If the Liberals and NDP keep their word and make decisions based on the best data, and release that data to the public, Canadian society and democracy will benefit immensely. Time will tell. 

Access all platform documents conveniently from the CBC here.

I have left my raw notes/copied reference text from the platforms here.

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