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Canadian election leaves scientists hanging — no matter who wins

Leading political parties pay scant attention to research in run-up to general election.

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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer

The Liberal Party's Justin Trudeau (left), spars with Andrew Scheer, who leads the rival Conservative Party, during a Canadian election debate on 10 October.Credit: Canadian Press/Shutterstock

Canada’s two main political parties are running neck and neck in the lead-up to the country’s general election on 21 October. It’s unclear which party will come out on top, and that uncertainty extends to how science will fare in the next government.

With the exception of climate change — one of the top issues for voters in recent polls — science has been largely absent from the election campaign. That has researchers worried that government support could fall by the wayside regardless of which party wins, and contrasts with the last general election in 2015.

Then, science made a surprise appearance when the left-leaning Liberal Party campaigned on a promise to reverse the previous government’s policies, which were widely seen as anti-science. The Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, won a tight race against the ruling Conservative Party.

The Liberal government has been generally good for science, says Katie Gibbs, executive director of the campaign group Evidence for Democracy in Ottawa. Trudeau, as prime minister, has boosted research funding, freed government researchers to speak to the public without first getting permission from the administration, and raised the profile of environmental concerns such as climate change and ocean conservation.

But many researchers feel that the government is resting on its laurels when it comes to science. “There is some concern that the government feels like they’re done. They’ve checked the box and they’re moving on,” says Gibbs.

Lack of commitment

The Liberal Party’s election platform has little to say about science, except for climate policy, with just one small pledge of Can$30 million (US$23 million) for paediatric cancer research. And there is no mention of the 2017 Fundamental Science Review, a major independent report commissioned by science minister Kirsty Duncan that found that Canada was falling behind other countries in basic research and funding. The report made several recommendations to reverse the trend, including boosting science spending from Can$3.5 billion annually to Can$4.8 billion per year. The government has implemented some of the recommendations, but hasn’t increased funding by the full recommended amount.

“Scientists have picked up on the fact that they don’t know what the Liberal plan is,” says Farah Qaiser, a masters student in genomics at the University of Toronto.

But the other parties don’t offer much more. The opposition Conservative party, which is tied with the Liberals for the lead, makes no mention of its plans for science funding in its platform, while the left-wing New Democratic Party has made only vague commitments to invest in science and innovation.

The Green Party has a more comprehensive platform, says Qaiser, including fully implementing the recommendations of the Fundamental Science Review, boosting funding for the country’s main research-granting agencies, improving transparency in government science and supporting open-access publishing. But analysts expect the party to win no more than a handful of seats in the parliament, so its influence on policies will depend on whether another party needs its help to form a government.

In an effort to get more attention for science in the election, Evidence for Democracy has teamed up with other organizations, including the Toronto Science Policy Network, which Qaiser leads, on a campaign called Vote Science. It provides ways for people to contact their local candidates, or set up meetings and debates about science issues.

So far, more than 600 people have used the website to contact politicians about science issues, and some candidates have asked how they can get involved, says Qaiser.

The most commonly raised topics include increased funding for basic science, support for the Fundamental Science Review and climate science — both supporting more research, and acting faster to fight global warming.

Light on details

Climate is an especially important issue for Canada’s scientists. In a survey of government researchers by a federal employees union, 94% said that climate change is a “crisis” in need of immediate action; just 20% said that Canada was doing enough. “Younger scientists in particular are very concerned about climate,” says Qaiser. “A lot took part in the recent climate strikes.”

Trudeau’s Liberal government introduced a national carbon tax in 2019 and has set a target of net-zero emissions by 2050. But the party has provided no details on how it will achieve that emissions target, and critics point out that the Liberal government bought a Can$4.5 billion oil pipeline in 2018.

The Conservatives say that they would scrap the carbon tax, and instead require companies whose carbon emissions exceed 40 kilotonnes per year to invest in emissions-reducing technology. The party would also lower the tax rate on income earned from patents on new green technology to encourage innovation.

But most climate experts agree that the Conservative climate plan would be “totally ineffective” at reducing emissions, says Jeremy Kerr, an ecologist at the University of Ottawa. For example, getting rid of the carbon tax could result in the use of less-efficient technologies in vehicles and power plants that would lead to more greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the Trudeau government’s patchy record on climate issues, there is no comparison between the two parties, Kerr says.

“The Liberals have a strong, evidence-based platform on climate that is supported by most scientists,” Kerr says.

The parties’ plans for climate change could influence how many people, including researchers, vote, says Gibbs. But the groups’ stances on science likely won’t, she adds. That’s why many of those issues are getting short shrift in the election campaign, Gibbs says. Researchers will have to wait until the next government forms to learn how science will fare for the next four years.

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 15 October 2019: Farah Qaiser is a masters student in genomics at the University of Toronto, not a doctoral student, as originally stated

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