In recent years, governments seeking to support science and innovation have increasingly adopted a national science and innovation ecosystem perspective that organizes policies, programs, structures and funding. This ecosystem perspective can provide a useful lens through which to view the party platforms and commitments regarding science and innovation.
Canada’s science and innovation system is dominated by three big players – the business sector, academia and the federal government -- sometimes referred to as the triple helix. (Other players include provincial governments, non-profit organizations and civil society, who also play important roles.) For the system to function well, each of these components must be strong in its own right, as well as enjoy strong linkages, flows and collaborations with the other players.
Within the business sector, major federal policy and program elements include indirect support through the Scientific Research and Experimental Development tax credit program, and direct funding support through programs such as the Superclusters and the National Research Council, and the protection of intellectual property rights including patents. Within the higher education sector, the federal granting agencies - e.g. NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Genome Canada - are key funders of Canada’s researchers in universities, colleges, and polytechnics. As well as acting as a major funder, the federal government is also a major research performer through its many science-based departments and agencies and their associated laboratories. The federal government also holds a unique role to play in ensuring effective science-based regulatory and science advisory systems to support evidence-informed decision making across a wide range of areas of public concern, like food inspection and traffic safety.
So, how do the party platforms stack up? When we consider the need for both policy to manage and fund Canada’s science and innovation system (i.e., policy for science), and the use of scientific evidence to support policy decision-making (i.e., science for policy), we find that it’s a scattershot approach, with some big holes.
Policy for Science
Here are some of the top policy-for-science issues in Canada today, and how the parties are addressing them.
- Promoting equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in science:
- The Green Party makes a comprehensive commitment to support NSERC’s Framework on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and strengthen the full participation of equity-seeking groups in Canadian science.
- The Liberal Party makes two EDI-targeted commitments: to add 1,000 Canada Research Chairs (with a focus on improving gender and racial equity), and to support Black researchers (with an equity target for federally funded scientific research, and a commitment of $30 million over five years for Black graduate students).
- The NDP states that they will support more options for women to build careers in fields such as “innovation, research and STEM.”
- Active and respectful collaboration with Indigenous communities: All parties commit to working with Indigenous communities on various issues, such as protecting marine areas and endangered species.
- Improving knowledge translation and mobilization of scientific findings: Science is only useful if it is accessible, and if relevant stakeholders can understand it and how it can be applied. There are many ways to address this, across many disciplines. On this topic, the Conservatives and NDP make various commitments to improve access to and communication of science in specific areas (such as improving risk communication infrastructure, and safeguarding the independence of the Chief Public Health Officer), and both commit to revamping the impact assessment process. The Liberals commit to $10 million for Health Canada to build an accessible portal to provide evidence-based information on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
- Reducing barriers to global research collaboration: Both the Conservative and Liberal parties make commitments to strengthen collaboration in certain areas, with specific geographic regions (including Africa and India).
- Taking a more mission-oriented approach to research funding: Both the Conservatives and Liberals have committed to create a new agency dedicated to the pursuit of advanced research projects. In the Liberals' case, this agency is modeled after the U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, with an initial endowment of $2 billion. The Conservatives have committed a $5 billion investment over five years, with plans for the new agency to have headquarters in Calgary. For their part, the Greens commit to “establish a dedicated innovation agency that focuses on developing joint projects across universities, private industry, and national labs.”
Other notable mentions include streamlining the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Program (for the Conservatives and Liberals), and bolstering support to pursue patents and safeguard intellectual property (for the Conservatives, Greens, and Liberals).
Science for Policy
Here are some of the top science-for-policy issues in Canada today, and how the parties are addressing them.:
- Continuing to learn about COVID-19, and preparing for future health emergencies through research investments:
- The Conservative party commits to enhancing scientific understanding of the transmission of pathogens on different surfaces in built environments, and the importance of infection control measures. The Conservatives also commit to a number of actions to strengthen the development of infectious disease and pandemic science infrastructure, research, and expertise in Canada, including restoring the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), which provides surveillance and early warnings that are critical for managing international public health emergencies like pandemics.
- The Liberal Party commits to investing $100 million to study the long-term health impacts of COVID-19, and a $100 million a year fund to pursue “moonshot research into high-impact illnesses, where a vaccine may be possible.”
- The NDP commits to work with universities and health professionals to ensure that public research on critical health issues continues to flourish. The NDP also commits to a number of actions to ensure readiness for future pandemics, including strengthening the GPHIN, safeguarding the Chief Public Health Officer’s independence and providing stable, long-term funding for the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
- The Green party also commits to strengthening the GPHIN, providing PHAC with long-term funding, and being guided by the recommendations of the relevant scientists and experts in formulating emergency response strategies.
- Building Canada’s capacity in specific scientific disciplines, each party identifies a different priority area.
- The Bloc commits to investing in a clean energy transition, aerospace, and to develop a new line of pesticides that do not contain neonicotinoids.
- The Conservatives commit to funding research in clean technologies (including hydrogen), pharmaceutical research, and critical medical isotopes.
- The Green Party commits to implementing the full recommendations from Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, increasing R&D spending to 2.5% of the GDP, increasing the funding allocated to the Tri-Council, and funding research related to ageing, dementia, climate change, and artificial intelligence.
- The Liberal Party re-affirms their support for previous commitments outlined in Budget 2021, including a PanCanadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, a National Quantum Strategy, and to invest in photonics research.
- The NDP commits to supporting research on critical health issues, creating a centre of excellence for research and development of zero-emission vehicles and related clean technology, and developing a national Autism strategy (which will also coordinate support for research).
But let’s cut to the chase.
The biggest issue facing our planet today is climate change. Science — in which we include all social, medical and natural sciences and engineering — has a critical role to play to enable us to reduce our production of greenhouse gases, and to mitigate and adapt to the consequences of climate change. While they take different approaches that reflect their ideological priorities, the five parties identify roles for science, evidence, and research and development to decarbonize our economy and reduce the impact of climate change. This includes investments in clean technology across all parties, and specific to the Conservative, Green, Liberal and NDP platforms, implementing advisory bodies to report to the Prime Minister’s Office and coordinate responses to climate emergencies. Party values demonstrate their respective priority areas — society, the environment, the economy — and who should be involved. For a full analysis of climate change related commitments, check out coverage from The Narwhal and Pembina Institute.
All of the commitments outlined above demonstrate at least one shared belief: that science contributes to the betterment of our society. Yet, these days, the relationship between science and society — based largely on a social contract forged at the end of the Second World War — is under strain.
A growing distrust of science is notable in the declining rates of trust in Canada, fed in part by the surge in misinformation and disinformation, and a lack of clear communication and coordinated, sustained engagement by the broader science community. The social contract between science and society requires renegotiation. The Green, Conservative, Liberal and NDP platforms (the latter three in targeted areas) acknowledge that Canada is dealing with an infodemic that requires action. This may be the most crucial commitment of all: rebuilding trust in our government institutions and in science, in order to implement and sustain real change in all the social and economic commitments discussed in these five political platforms.
- This analysis focuses on explicit platform commitments that use the words science, research, development, and evidence. While we would like to think that any plan, strategy, commitment, declaration about improving our health, communities, the environment, and our economy is based on evidence and consider the relevant science, we know that science isn’t always included where it should be.