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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2014

Putting science policy on the radar for next federal election

The ongoing issues surrounding the government’s approach to science policy took center stage Nov. 27 during a panel discussion held in a packed meeting room at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa.
The ongoing issues surrounding the government’s approach to science policy took center stage Nov. 27 during a panel discussion held in a packed meeting room at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa.
With the country’s political parties gearing up for the federal election set for next year, Ca­nada’s scientists and researchers are putting what they say is the government’s dismal reco­rd in the spotlight.

At a town hall meeting organized by CAUT last month, researchers and politicians debated Canada’s science policy and support for research.

“There is a consensus emerging in the scientific and research community that the federal government is moving in the wrong direction,” said CAUT president Robin Vose in opening the standing-room only event. “Getting science right is essential because of its impact on the economy, social affairs, and public health and safety.”

The town hall, the latest in CAUT’s Get Science Right campaign, was hosted by science reporter Mike De Souza and included University of Ottawa physics professor Béla Joós, Queen’s chemistry professor Diane Beauchemin, Carleton University Graduate Student Association president Christina Muehlberger, the NDP and Liberal science and technology critics Kennedy Stewart and Ted Hsu, and Conservative insider Tim Powers.

The University of Ottawa’s Joós explained how Canada’s support and training for researchers is shrinking, while the government tries to mask the problem with new funding programs like the Canada Excellence Research Chairs that do little to address real needs.

“The Canada Excellence Research Chairs program only supports research areas that match up well with the federal government’s priorities or link directly to an economic outcome,” he said. “But government has a responsibility to support a wide range of research. Failure to invest in government science is preventing us from having expertise to respond to emergencies like pandemics and climate change.”

Queen’s University chemist Beauchemin said academic researchers are forced to take on work that used to be done by government scientists and agencies. She noted that she is receiving more and more requests from the RCMP to examine forensic evidence.

“As academics, we continue to allow this work to be offloaded because we know the work needs to be done,” she said. “But we should be speaking out.”

Conservative Party insider Tim Powers raised the temperature of the debate when he questioned whether there was any evidence the government was not committed to science or if government scientists were in fact being muzzled. NDP MP Ken­nedy Stewart and Liberal MP Ted Hsu both said they’ve heard from numerous scientists and researchers across the country complaining about government interference in their work, or not being allowed to comment without official permission from their political bosses.

When considering what should be done to get science right, most panellists agreed that the government needs to restore funding for basic research, reinvest in federal science, and protect the independence and integrity of scientific research. To this end Stewart has proposed a private member’s bill that would create an independent parliamentary science officer (Bill C-558), while Hsu has drafted Bill C-626 to reinstate the mandatory long form census.

“There’s a lot of commonality in thinking that science policy isn’t based on evidence but ideology,” Carleton student Christina Muehl-berger said. “It’s having a social and academic impact as graduate students are struggling for smaller pockets of funding and facing restrictions on their research from private donors. We will definitely be taking this issue to the polls in the coming election.”

Joós agreed that it’s time for Ca­nada’s scientific community to get political.

“We have a good foundation for academic research in Canada from before 2004 and we must fight to preserve it,” he said.

Ed Holder, the minister of state for science and technology, was invited but declined to attend the event.

The Ottawa event was the first in a series of local town halls that CAUT will be hosting over the next year in a continuing effort to draw public attention to the need to develop a new approach to science policy in Canada.