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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2016

Data recovery a challenge

Scientists and academic researchers from across the country applauded when the new Liberal government announced it would restore the mandatory long-form census. The decision to fix the census was the right thing to do, experts say, but a lot more needs to be done so that Statistics Canada and science in general regain the status they had within the federal system.

“The last decade was horrible and the elimination of the long-form census was disastrous,” said David Wolfe, co-director of the Innovation Policy Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “Restoring the census will put things back on track, but what follows will depend on how quickly the government reinvests to rebuild Statistics Canada.”

University of Toronto sociologist David Hulchanski agrees. Hulchanski, who is best known for his work on income polarization in Canadian cities, requires statistically accurate data to carry out his research, and has been very vocal in criticizing the poor quality of data in StatsCan’s voluntary national household survey.

“The 2011 National Household Survey should not be used or cited,” Hulchanski says. “It should be withdrawn and the 2016 census restored to the non-politicized, non-partisan scientific methodology that existed prior to the flawed 2011 National Household Survey.”

When the Conservatives came to power in 2006, Statistics Canada’s annual budget was $558.4 million. By 2014, the budget had fallen to $471.5 million, a drop of 15.6 per cent. With the cuts came job reductions. Between 2012 and 2014, StatsCan laid off 767 employees, or 18 per cent of its staff.

“We stopped doing a number of studies that the Conservatives considered too soft, including those of a more social nature,” recalls Emmanuelle Tremblay, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, which represents 13,000 federal civil servants, including 2,000 who work at StatsCan. “The Liberals are sending out some strong signals now and as a union we expect the signals to be followed by concrete action.”

And by that, Tremblay means significant budget hikes. “There was a major reduction in the number of government researchers. If we want to start making decisions again that are based on science, either we hire more government researchers or we invest in university research that’s done for the common good,” she said.

“Statistics Canada was a jewel,” Wolfe said, noting the agency “can become that once again, but a lot of time and money will be needed to repair the damage done. It’s easier to fire people and cut expenses than it is to rebuild an institution. The agency lost a lot of highly-qualified people, and with them, a lot of institutional memory.”

Lacking resources, StatsCan was forced to discontinue a number of major studies. In 2013 alone, 34 studies were dropped. One was the survey of labour and income dynamics, which delivered information about Canada’s labour market. Other studies were just as vital and looked at science, technology and the state of intellectual property in universities.

The lack of solid data is a hindrance for researchers like University of Saskatchewan education professor Marie Battiste. She studies accessibility, retention, and success rates of students from First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities in Canada’s post-secondary institutions. Using data from the 2001 and 2006 mandatory censuses, Battiste was able to paint an accurate picture of the situation of aboriginal students aged 15 to 24 across the country.

“But since 2010, the voluntary census doesn’t gather enough information for us to track trends and identify major issues affecting Canada’s aboriginals,” Battiste said. “All the new data on aboriginal peoples won’t be public and, in any case, will only address issues that are too narrow in scope to be of any use to researchers.”

“The cuts at Statistics Canada are only the tip of the iceberg,” adds Tremblay. “Basing public policy on evidence doesn’t only involve the basic sciences. What happened over the last 10 years affected all my members, many of whom work in analyzing and advising the political system. We’re going to have to relearn the role we play.”