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A Decade-Long Spotlight on Scientific Integrity

Evidence for Democracy is launching a blog series to reflect on the past, present, and future of scientific integrity in Canada.

A decade ago, evidence-informed decisions were seemingly becoming an endangered species in Canada. Beyond the wilful exclusion of science from policy decisions, the federal government was steadily undermining the role of science and data in government. This included cancelling the long-form census, slashing environmental and climate research budgets, and preventing government scientists from speaking to the public about their work. This interference in science, dubbed the “War on Science”, eventually sparked the Death of Evidence rallies in 2012 by scientists and their supporters, leading to the founding of Evidence for Democracy.

In the years that followed, Evidence for Democracy and others have worked hard to safeguard and advocate for scientific integrity so that researchers can conduct and communicate their work with openness and without political interference, that high standards are ensured when it comes to research ethics and quality, and that the best available evidence informs science advice and policy. The role that journalists and the media have played cannot be understated, as they have been critical in both identifying and keeping issues alive. And indeed, these efforts have borne significant results, such as the appointment of a Chief Science Advisor of Canada, and the development and adoption of scientific integrity policies across the federal government, among others.

Today, it can be tempting to think of the “War on Science” as a relic of a bygone era, but this isn’t the case. Like any complex issue, progress towards a culture of scientific integrity is not linear, nor is it immune to erosion. In recent years, reports of interference in science have continued to emerge across different jurisdictions, making plain that challenges around scientific integrity persist in Canada. These new reports may be disheartening, but they are not surprising. Issues related to scientific integrity have been long standing in Canada, even well before the “War on Science.” Notably, the Our Right To Know Working Group has maintained detailed documentation of the obstacles that scientists and scholars have faced in carrying out research since 2006.

This does not mean that our efforts are futile. It means that safeguarding scientific integrity requires persistence and vigilance. No matter the government of the day, scientific integrity is liable to come under fire from various players and for myriad reasons, now and in the years to come. We, members of the science and research community, have a responsibility when it comes to scientific integrity — that is, to speak up for public science, to ask questions and demand more from our decision-makers, and to come to better grips with how policy is shaped and implemented. Journalist Kathryn O’Hara and former public servant Paul Dufour issued a call to action in their 2014 book chapter, which remains true today:

“If there is a lesson to be learned, and it may be a simple one, it is this: government scientists have a responsibility to speak out about topics when they hold expert knowledge, particularly if this understanding can better inform policy. Civic society shares a responsibility, in turn, to protect scientists when they do. The government for its part needs to take seriously its duty to protect and defend the freedom of scientists to investigate, and in the spirit of scientific integrity, efficiently communicate their research.”

To reflect on scientific integrity over the past decade, Evidence for Democracy is launching a Perspectives on Scientific Integrity In 2023 blog series. Over the next few weeks, invited experts, across sectors, will reflect on the progress that has been made on scientific integrity, the challenges we face today, and where we need to go.

Today, we kick off this blog series with a broad review of select events related to scientific integrity that have taken place in Canada since 2013, particularly those that have been captured by the media. This timeline highlights both how far we’ve come and how much work there still is to do, and importantly, reminds us to stay engaged and ready to demand more from decision-makers.

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