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Mixed results for Liberals on science: A rundown of election promises

In the lead-up to the 2015 federal election, the federal Liberals made 219 promises to Canadians. Fifteen of these related to science and evidence-based decision-making. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the election, we ask, what progress has been made?
Justin Trudeau speaks.

We discussed in depth the performance of the Liberals on a few key promises in the Toronto Star.

What about the rest? Here, we give you a run down of every pre-election promise relating to science and evidence… and where things stand today.

Invest $40 million each year to help employers create more co-op placements for students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and business programs. The 2016 budget invested $73 million over 4 years for this purpose: under half of what was promised.

Establish Canada Research Chairs in sustainable technology. The 2016 budget proposed $20 million over eight years, starting in 2018-19, to create two additional Canada Excellence Research Chairs in fields related to clean and sustainable technology. The competition for these positions was recently announced.

Invest $25 million each year to develop Canada’s National Parks system. Parks Canada researchers were some of the hardest hit under the previous Conservative government, with many Parks losing the majority of their scientific staff. The most recent budget has proposed to invest $142.3 million over five years, but how much of this will go to research and monitoring (an essential part of Parks’ mission statement of preserving ecological integrity), is unknown.

Invest $200 million more each year to support innovation and the use of clean technologies in our natural resource sectors, including the forestry, fisheries, mining, energy, and agricultural sectors. The 2016 budget proposed $1 billion over four years, starting in 2017-18, which is more than the promised amount. We will expect further details about implementation of this funding from the federal government’s Innovation Agenda, which is still in a consultation phase.

Increase the amount of Canada’s marine and coastal areas that are protected to 5% by 2017 and 10% by 2020. Marine protected areas are widely understood by marine biologists and ocean scientists as essential to preserve fish stocks and healthy oceans. No new formal Marine Protected Areas under the Oceans Act have been established since the Trudeau government took power, but increases in protected coastal lands by other agencies (such as provincial governments and private land trusts) are unknown.

Modernize the National Energy Board, ensuring that its composition reflects regional views and has sufficient expertise in fields like environmental science, community development, and Indigenous traditional knowledge. The Liberals have put in place interim measures for current projects under review to improve consultation, Indigenous participation, and public engagement. They are in the process of establishing a panel to look at the Terms of Reference for the National Energy Board.

E4D has submitted a response to their consultation, questioning the need for this troubled institution to exist at all, rather than be folded back under the jurisdiction of CEAA.

Review Canada’s environmental assessment processes and introduce new and fair processes. The recently appointed CEAA expert panel is touring the country gathering public opinion from both Indigenous and settler Canadians. E4D submitted a response to their consultation on panel terms of reference, urging the inclusion of expertise in the natural and social sciences. The appointed panel, while representing a better diversity of skills and views, did not include any scientists or scientific experts.

Release key information that informs decision-making and devote a fixed percentage of program funds to experimenting with new approaches to existing problems. Given the vague nature of this promise, and lack of specific follow-up from the government, it is difficult to acknowledge if this promise has been accomplished.

Make Statistics Canada fully independent and restore the mandatory long-form census. The mandatory long-form census was indeed restored, to the thrill of nerdy Canadians. This questionnaire was not only celebrated, but in the words of our former head statistician, was the “best census since 1666.” However, given that Wayne Smith resigned in protest in mid-September over loss of the independence of the office as a result of convoluted agreements, it seems that all is still not well with one our most important national institutions.

Revoke rules and regulations that muzzle government scientists and allow them to speak freely about their work (with only limited and publicly stated exceptions). Leaks of internal emails suggest that unofficially, scientists are free to speak. Yet, many are unsure. The writing in the books–the communications policies that govern their departments–hasn’t changed. Many of these were deemed by a 2015 report to inhibit communication, and not protect rights to free speech or freedom from political interference. Although there are ongoing efforts to enshrine science integrity policies into bargaining agreements for federal scientists, there has been no formal movement from the feds on this file.

Create the post of Chief Science Officer. We are well on our way to 2017, and no Chief Science Officer has yet been announced. The Minister of Science has taken input from organizations on this file, and much speculation has been proliferated, but we continue to wait with bated breath.

Restore funding for freshwater research & restore funding for ocean science & monitoring. This funding exceeded promised amounts, as the 2016 budget allocated nearly $200 million over five years. Part of this support was earmarked for the IISD’s Experimental Lakes Area, a ground breaking institution controversially shut down by the Conservative government. Last spring, DFO announced it was hiring 135 scientists: a drastic reversal to personnel cuts under the previous regime.

This funding is being shared beyond the public service. Recently, $94 million was announced toward a new Ocean Frontier Institute to advance methods in ocean science, and a further $78 million given to support the Global Water Futures program. This government seems to be taking their commitments to water and ocean science seriously, perhaps responding to dire forecasts about the effects of climate change on our oceans and freshwater supplies.

Open data and open science. Three separate promises described making taxpayer-funded scientific information open and available to the public. Progress has begun on this front, with the access to information request process now free and more easily accessible, and a central government portal for open data has been created. Scientific data make up over half of the most-requested data types from the government, and the benefits of open scientific data are enormous, fostering economic innovation, international collaboration, and cross-boundary problem solving. However, open data and open science are two different things. A true commitment to open science must acknowledge scientific integrity and open communication at all stages of the scientific process, and policies need to be put in place to ensure openness is enshrined in perpetuity.

How do you think Trudeau’s Liberals have performed on science in their first year? 

(We evaluated these promises based on our internal research archive as well as

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