Liberals pledge to unmuzzle scientists

Canadian science community calls on Trudeau to reverse Harper government policies

The Liberal Party of Canada’s sweeping majority government win on Oct. 19 brought hope for Canadian science. Government scientists faced 10 years of cutbacks and muzzling from Stephen Harper, but under Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau’s government, they may see some more freedom. The Liberal platform has outlined several commitments in key areas of science policy, but even before being sworn in, Trudeau and his government are facing pressure from Canada’s science community.
The Liberal platform has committed to “revoke rules and regulations that muzzle government scientists,” referring to restraints imposed by the Harper government on federal scientists’ ability to communicate their research. Since 2007, Environment Canada’s media relations policy has restrained its scientists from speaking to the press by requiring any interviews to go through a prolonged approval process, with the Environment Minister reserving the right to deny an interview request. As of 2010, Canadian media coverage on climate change had declined 80 per cent as a result of these restraints.
Some funding to federal research may also be restored under the new government. The Liberal platform pledges to reinstate a $40 million cut by the Harper government to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), and promises to add $8 million annually to DFO’s research funding and community consultation. These recommendations were part of a special article published by a group of scientists from across Canada in the journal Marine Policy on Oct. 6. $50 million in annual funding has also been pledged over the next four years for both “national parks programming and science” and “water science and monitoring.”
A parliamentary Chief Science Officer would also be reappointed under the Liberal platform. The Harper government abolished an equivalent position in 2008 – the Chief Science Advisor. According to the Liberal platform, the Chief Science Officer’s role would be to “ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.”
Investing in several other areas of public policy related to science are also included in the Liberal platform. These include restoring the long-form census eliminated by the Harper government in 2010, increasing funding and independence to Statistics Canada, and devoting an unannounced percentage of research funding to new and experimental science-based policy.
Trudeaumetre, a website which quantitatively tracks which pledges in the Liberal platform have been pursued or completed, launched within several days of the Liberal victory and has since garnered over 10,000 likes on Facebook. It currently tracks seven commitments made by the Liberals in science policy.
Trudeau’s government will be sworn in on Nov. 4, but has already been called upon by Canada’s scientific community to honour the commitments it made during the election campaign. Evidence for Democracy, a non-profit organization that promotes science-based decision-making in Canada, read a letter on CBC’s The Current on Oct. 20, calling on Trudeau to honour his party’s science-policy commitments made during the election. An open letter published in the Toronto Star on Oct. 25 by Jeremy Kerr from the University of Ottawa and Isabelle Côté from Simon Fraser University and signed by scientists from across Canada urged the Liberal government to fund federal science and increase its influence, reading “now is the time to embrace these opportunities and ensure transparent, evidence-based decision-making in Ottawa. That would be real change indeed.”

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