Dear Minister of Science: Here’s What Canada Needs to Get Back on Track

Today is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first day in office and when it comes to science, his new cabinet appointees look like a step in the right direction.

On top of naming Catherine McKenna the first ever Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Trudeau also appointed a Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, as well as a Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains.

Duncan has a doctoral degree in geography, previously taught meterology, climatology and climate change at the University of Windsor and was a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

These appointments combined with Trudeau’s point blank response to questions about his 50 per cent female cabinet mandate (“Because it’s 2015”), his inclusion of indigenous leaders and his collaborative approach to the upcoming Paris climate talks have inspired a lot of hope in the new Prime Minister.

But with an abundance of commitments about science, electoral reform and transparency some Canadian scientists are left wondering if Trudeau will be able to live up to the promises.

Minister Duncan, we've done some of the intelligence gathering for you and here's what Canadian scientists say they hope to see from the new government.

Return to Evidence-Based Decision-Making

I’m tremendously excited about this change in government,” Wendy Palen, associate professor of ecology at Simon Fraser University, told DeSmog Canada.

Palen, who also sits on the board of the science-advocacy group Evidence for Democracy, said the Liberal government has made big promises to undo the damage done by the Conservatives.

Many Canadians think Harper’s policy regarding science has really looted what it means to be Canadian — both at home and how we’re seen by the international community,” Palen said.

I think the Liberals have their job cut out for them but I think they’ll make progress restoring evidence-based decision-making in a way that hasn’t been there for a while.”

Create a New Culture of Science Among Public Servants

Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, agrees there is a lot of work to be done but that many of the Liberal’s platform promises “will go a long way to restoring and rebuilding science in Canada.”

A lot of the promises they made are certainly feasible — reinstating the long-form census, un-muzzling government scientists, creating a Parliamentary Science Officer — these are all doable. They just require the political will to make them happen,” Gibbs said.

But some policies will be easier to change than the mindset of scientists working within federal departments, she added.

Changing the communication policy is fairly easy and could be done quickly, but changing the culture among government scientists could take much longer,” Gibbs said.

Prioritize Science and Evidence, Quickly

Gibbs added that a major challenge for the Liberal government will be prioritization. With so many important election promises on the table, competing interest groups, lobbyists and civil society organizations from across the country are jockeying for first dibs. 

[It] can't all be done immediately, so what is this government going to prioritize?” Gibbs said. “Which is also why it's really important to recognize that the work isn't over, it's really just beginning.”

Set Measurable Environmental Targets the Public Can Evaluate

Isabelle Côté, professor of marine ecology at Simon Fraser University, describes herself as “very cautiously optimistic” about the Liberal government’s campaign promises.

I don’t think it can be as bad as we’ve had it for the past 10 years,” Cote said, adding, “but that’s the problem: expectations are so high because we’ve been battered so hard and essentially decimated for so many years.”

Côté said Trudeau’s reluctance to set specific greenhouse gas emissions targets is troubling.

I find that worrisome because obviously if we don’t have targets, we can’t evaluate how well we’re doing. Without targets we can say we’re doing better but we don’t know. And that worries me a bit.”

Côté added Trudeau’s inconsistent position on pipelines as well as the fact that “one of his campaign managers seemed to be buddy-buddy with the oil industry” is also cause for concern.

Trudeau’s commitment to meet the Convention on Biological Diversity’s goals for ocean protection is unlikely to happen, according to Côté.

[Trudeau] wants to meet our CBD commitment of 10 per cent of our oceans protected by 2020 but right now we’re at less than one per cent,” Cote said.

The reality is that given the legislation we have now and the amount of consultation that has to happen for permanently protected marine areas — we don’t have the time.”

Cote noted that one protected area off the B.C. coast took a decade of consultation to put in place.

Getting Canada back on track to do more than just marine protection is going to take a tremendous amount of work, Côté said.

We feel like the page has been turned but we need many, many pages to be turned just to get back to where we were 10 years ago.”

A good place to start would be with the implementation of a Parliamentary Science Officer, she added. “I think that’s something he could do tomorrow. He could say, ‘the search begins.’ ”

But Côté remains realistic: “The reality is it’s going to take a heck of a long time to reassemble the expertise that’s been lost by all the cuts. It’s not like these people are just waiting in the wings to jump back into the positions they had. Those people are gone.”

Bring Science Funding Back

One of those lost federal scientists is Peter Ross, former federal scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Ross, a marine contaminants expert now working with the Vancouver Aquarium, said Canada “has serious work to do” when it comes to restoring science.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I was optimistic,” Ross said.

Even though these last few years have been hard, I’ve always remained optimistic.”

Ross said after major budget cuts and a restrictive communications environment, he would like to see the mandate of science expanded in Canada.

If we look at the history of science in Canada we spend half of what the OECD spends on science — we always have,” he said. “If we’re going to excel in terms of the knowledge economy, in terms of the global village, we have to invest in science.”

Trudeau has promised to return $40 million in funding to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, a federal body that saw a research exodus after major funding cuts under the Harper government in 2012.

Stick to Liberal Party’s Scientific Integrity Motion

Jeremy Kerr, professor of biology at the University of Ottawa, said he is “definitely optimistic” science will fare better under this new leadership.

It’s like coming out of a cave,” Kerr said. “The last 10 years have been an almost unrelenting series of efforts to suppress scientific information, shut down programs, supplement normal communications with clearly organized propaganda efforts.”

It has been an incredibly dark time.”

Kerr, who worked with the Liberal party and new Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan in May to craft a parliamentary motion to restore scientific integrity, said he has “every expectation” the Liberal government will follow through with many of the good ideas — including unmuzzling scientists and creating a Parliamentary Science Officer — in that document.

Kerr said some members of the scientific community are unnecessarily pessimistic about implementing changes.

A lot of the scientific integrity changes that we have called for and many others have called for are not going to require an act of Parliament to achieve,” Kerr said. “What they are going to require, with careful thinking, is a few days writing a policy and communicating it to the public service.”

Kerr said people think restoring science in Canada will be “some monumental Everest challenge.”

But I just don’t think it is,” Kerr said, adding that though these things can be done easily they must be treated as urgent.

Some of that stuff has got to be done quickly. If it doesn’t get done quickly the opportunity for using electoral momentum will pass and they will be slowed down by the inevitable inertia of being in power.”

Kerr said the Liberal government should work to restore broken relationships with the public sector through the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada. Morale among scientists is at “subterranean” levels at this point, he said.

Kerr also said the government needs to repair the holes in environmental protection, such as the loss of protection for practically all freshwater bodies in Canada, and enforce the Species at Risk Act.

The federal science issue in Canada right now is basically a field of debris,” he said. “I think that’s over now, but we don’t know — the proof is going to be in the pudding.”

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