An Update on Science and Research in Ontario

Tuesday, April 16, 2019 - 10:12

On June 7, 2018, Ontario elected a new Conservative government, led by Doug Ford. The shift in government has led to many changes in Ontario that are still emerging, including several shifts pertaining to science and research.

At Evidence for Democracy, we care about science capacity and ensuring that government decisions are made transparently, with robust evidence supporting them. As such, we’ve been closely monitoring the changes in Ontario to make sure that science, research and evidence-informed decision-making is a priority.

We wanted to bring you up to speed with some of the initiatives we’ve undertaken regarding science in the provincial government.

Ontario’s Chief Scientist

In November 2017, the Ontario government hired a brand new Chief Scientist, Dr. Molly Shoichet. In her role, she would help advise the provincial government on science, ensure evidence was used in policy and decision-making, coordinate on research across the province and with the external community, develop a research strategy for Ontario, and build public trust in science.

However, in the first few days after their election, just six months after her appointment, the new government dismissed the Chief Scientist. Advisors to the Premier assured the public that the new government would “undergo a process of finding a suitable and qualified replacement."

However, since the Chief Scientist dismissal in July, there has been no word about hiring a replacement.

In February 2019, we sent a follow-up letter to Premier Ford’s office directly, inquiring about the hiring process of a Chief Scientist. In addition, using Ontario’s Freedom of Access to Information act, we have submitted a request seeking information on this hiring process.

We will keep you posted if we hear back and in the meantime, you can help us keep this issue on the agenda by sending a message to Premier Ford and your MPP that Ontario needs a Chief Scientist. We will keep you updated as this process goes on.

Research in Ontario

Recently, we’ve heard concerns from Ontario researchers that there may be upcoming reductions in funding for scientific research from the Ontario government. For example, the Species At Risk Research Fund usually has a call for proposals with a deadline of the end of March. There was no call for proposals made this year, suggesting a potential phase-out.

The latest Ontario budget, released April 11, raises concerns over potential cuts to provincial government research. The budget cut $162 million in funding from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, $351.8 million from Environment Conservation and Parks and $185.5 from Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade. These are roughly 19% 36% and 19% cuts to their respective current funding pools and could have implications for science and research in Ontario.

In line with these concerns, we have been gathering information, and closely monitoring existing Ontario research funds for any potential changes to programs and funding. In addition, we have submitted a FOIA request pertaining to any potential changes to research funding from the Ontario government. If you notice any changes to funding for Ontario research programs, please get in touch with us.

Scientific Integrity in Ontario

One of our largest campaigns at E4D focused on ensuring that science integrity in the federal government is preserved, and that scientists have the right and ability to speak about their work. To help do this, we worked with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), and with your help, the federal government has implemented new Scientific Integrity Policies, which are being rolled out in science departments and agencies across the government.

Given the success of this campaign, and recent changes to the Ontario government, we are currently assessing the potential need for work relating to scientific integrity at the provincial level in Ontario. Scientific integrity is a critical component of all government science, not just at the federal level.

We have had some early engagement with Ontario government unions and are having conversations with scientists in the provincial government to assess the need for more work on science integrity and communication of science. If you’re a scientist in the provincial government, we’d love to speak with you about this.

Environmental Commissioner

Ontario no longer has an Environmental Commissioner. Following the announcement of this change in November 2018, we helped coordinat an open letter signed by over 200 environmental researchers in Ontario highlighting the role that the office played in supporting evidence-informed decision-making around environmental issues in the province.

Unfortunately, efforts to save the position were not successful and the office was closed in March.

Endangered Species, Climate Policy, and Harm Reduction Sites

Lastly, there are several key provincial policy areas that we are monitoring.

The Ontario government announced they were reviewing the Endangered Species Act “to improve protections for species at risk, consider modern and innovative approaches to achieve positive outcomes for species at risk, as well as to look for ways to streamline approvals and provide clarity to support economic development.” Many experts expressed concern that this could be used to weaken the Act. We encouraged researchers and experts to provide comments and input on the proposal and will keep you updated on the results.

In previous years, Ontario was a strong leader in climate change mitigation, thanks to several climate policy steps that included the 2009 Green Energy and Green Economy Act, the 2016 Climate Change Mitigation and Low-carbon Economy Act, implementation of a cap and trade system to lower emissions, and joining the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. However, when the new Ontario government took power in 2018, they made several changes that were steps backwards, including abolishing cap-and-trade, cancellation of electricity conservation programs, and implementation of a new growth plan, expected to increase urban sprawl and fossil fuel reliance. In her last report, the Environmental Commissioner expressed great concern, saying that the state of climate policy in Ontario was “frightening”. Ontario’s new “Cap-and-Trade Cancellation Act” was implemented to replace the Climate Change Mitigation and Low-Carbon Economy Act. However, it ultimately lacks the qualities of a good climate policy for Ontario.

Lastly, on March 29th, the provincial government announced they would cut funding to a number of safe injection sites across Ontario. Given strong evidence supporting the use of harm reduction to counter the ongoing overdose crisis and keep Canadians safer, this is a troubling move that could put substance users in danger. This is a situation we are monitoring and may be active on in the near future. We will keep you posted as things progress.

Kimberly Girling

Research and Policy Director

Kimberly Girling started her career as a scientist, completing a PhD in Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia where she developed novel therapeutics for Huntington's Disease, a neurodegenerative illness. During her work in science, she learned that good science must move beyond the bench, linking evidence to effective policies and accessible products.