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Our “new” government — and what it means for science

Canada’s 44th federal election has now come and gone. Blink, and you may have missed the campaign — it was, after all, a mere 36 days. Blink, and you may also miss Canada’s 44th session of Parliament — there is already talk of the 45th election.
Our new government and what it means for science.

Blink again, and well, you would be forgiven for mistaking our 44th Parliament for the 43rd — the result was largely the same as the 2019 election.

So while the world is nothing like the one that surrounded Canada’s last federal election in 2019, the House of Commons has managed to (ahem) largely shelter in place this round. As you can expect from us at Evidence for Democracy, we are thinking about what this new (yet familiar) government composition might mean for science and evidence in Canada.

But first, let’s talk about what this new government (likely, probably) doesn’t mean. Given the limited shelf life of minority governments, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where significant advances are made on critical science issues, such as improving Canada’s investments in fundamental science or developing a national science strategy. (That being said, minority governments have been good for Canada in the past.)

If we return briefly to the Liberal Party’s election platform, we find a mish-mash of schemes for science and innovation. Among them, there is a plan to mobilize a Canadian version of one of the global north’s biggest research success stories, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the darling giant of American research and development. Again, given the size and scope of such an endeavour, it feels aggressively optimistic to imagine the Canadian riff (cutely named CARPA) will grow legs to stand on in the next 18-24 months.

Let’s focus on where science and evidence might be able to make some gains in Canada’s favourite new political fabric that is minority government. And why not start where we left off, in our 43rd session of democracy?

In late May of this year, and before the House of Commons broke for summer, Parliamentarians unanimously voted in favour of creating a new Standing Committee on Science and Research. While the mandate of this Committee exists only in our hearts and minds right now, the motion text mentions that it “shall include […] the review and report on all matters relating to science and research, including any reports of the Chief Science Advisor.” Presumably, the mandate of the Committee will be refined as it takes shape through its members and matters of the day, and is an important opportunity for all parties to weigh in.

And lo! Did someone mention the Chief Science Advisor? While the Office of the Chief Science Advisor (OCSA) was renewed for a second two-year term in September 2020, it is still not protected by any official measure to withstand changes in government. Given the extraordinary strain on the relationship between science and government over the course of the pandemic, this should be of concern for advancing an evidence agenda. Solidifying the OCSA as a permanent feature of the federal government is an opportunity for all parties in this minority government to make a gesture of good will to the evolving role of science in their decisions.

Of course, there are several other facets to explore when it comes to advancing the role of science and evidence in this session of Parliament, too many to cover here. For example, what about follow-through on the science-related investments in Budget 2021?

This summer, professor Ruth Morgan remarked that “the role of science has traditionally been reserved for enabling developments […]. But science will need to become more than this if we are to make the breakthroughs in the global issues we currently face.” This is one of the monumental shifts that must happen to change the trajectory of the crises that loom large — by our elected officials, public servants, scientists and researchers, and critically, by voters everywhere.

It makes little difference as to whether that change makes meaningful strides under a minority or majority scenario. The same holds true for political banners. It simply must come to be. Future proofing the country to absorb the shocks of the coming decades requires a bolder commitment to using science and evidence in Ottawa — and, in Victoria, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Quebec City, Fredericton, Charlottetown, Halifax, St. John’s, Iqaluit, Yellowknife and Whitehorse.

We’re ready when you are.


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