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Op-ed: What cuts to the public service mean for government science

This is an excerpt from an op-ed authored by our Katie Gibbs and Kathleen Walsh, published in the Ottawa Citizen on July 20th, 2018.
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Read the full article here.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford promised to provide “value for money” when it comes to tax dollars spent on the public service. Days after taking office, he required the public service to cancel all subscriptions to newspapers and other sources of information, and freeze all travel outside the province.

What might sound like small cuts translates into serious impacts within the public service, especially for government scientists. Without access to the necessary subscription-based scientific journals, or travel to scientific conferences, Ontario scientists won’t obtain the information needed to do their jobs. Making crucial decisions about Ontarians’ health and safety without up-to-date information is hardly a good strategy for saving money. Ford might have been able to get advice on how these cuts would affect government science if he hadn’t fired Ontario’s first Chief Scientist a week into his new job.

Unfortunately, his approach is not new. It’s becoming a well-worn playbook for governments that don’t want inconvenient science and evidence to get in the way of their ideologically driven policies. The federal Harper government, notorious for muzzling government scientists, shuttering research labs and serious cuts to public science capacity, went down a similar path.

In British Columbia, the provincial Liberal government cut scientific capacity within the public service by 25 per cent. These cuts led to B.C. having the smallest public service in Canada. As a result, much of the public interest science normally done by the province was outsourced to “qualified professionals,” hired by industry and project proponents, with little to no oversight.

This system, called “Professional Reliance,” can result in disaster. For example, in 2014, after years of neglect, a dam built and maintained by a mining company failed, emptying millions of litres of waste into Polley Lake and several other freshwater sources, destroying ecosystems.

At the time, the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines took information from industry-hired professionals without question. There was no oversight, no one to review or even ensure the required reports on the state of the dam were submitted to government. This came as no surprise: the ministry had reduced its number of licensed professionals, the kind of qualified and knowledgeable public servants who would be monitoring and reviewing the dam, by 31 per cent between 2009 and 2014.

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