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We need a national debate on science

A question about science policy has never been asked at a federal leaders’ debate. Now more than ever that has to change.
A close up of a microphone

This opinion piece by Evidence for Democracy’s Dr. Katie Gibbs and Alana Westwood was originally posted in the Toronto Star.

Science, unquestionably, improves our everyday lives.

The work of scientists is everywhere; their efforts are reflected in everything from the cleanliness of our water to the success of medical treatments to the smartphones glued to our hands.

Canada’s commitment to science, and our scientific capacity, made us an international leader for years. It was Canadian medical researchers who decoded the breast cancer genome, invented medical insulin and have developed a promising Ebola vaccine. Social scientists and statisticians help us understand our changing demographics, guiding decisions on everything from where to build new schools and hospitals to helping businesses make smarter investment choices. Right now, environmental scientists are using their expertise to guide the fight against forest fires in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

Given the clear importance of science in our lives, why has a question about science policy never — not once — been asked in a federal leaders’ debate?

Evidence for Democracy analyzed debate questions in all the televised English-language federal leaders’ debates from 1968 to 2011 (with the exception of 1997, for which we could not find a record) to see which topics were discussed. Unsurprisingly, 32 per cent of all debate questions focused on the economy — taxes, unemployment, trade agreements, etc. Social policies including medicare, child care, and women’s issues covered 25 per cent of the questions. Government accountability and ethics accounted for 20 per cent, with national unity, foreign affairs, and public safety making up most of the rest. Only 2 per cent of debate questions focused on protection of the environment.

But not one question on science.

Certainly, these are all important topics that matter a great deal to Canadians. However, the science that underlies these issues has been ignored. Monitoring and research is how we evaluate whether our social programs are working, ensuring that taxpayer dollars are being well spent. Without systematic demographic data (like the long-form census used to provide), predicting the impact of new economic policies becomes no more than guesswork. Environmental monitoring allows us to identify and address potential issues before they become catastrophes. Science is even integral to understanding how we vote … certainly something politicians should be interested in.

With millions of viewers tuning in, the leaders’ debates are often the pinnacle of the election period, both reflecting the issues of the day and helping to shape them. This election season the leaders’ debates have become a political issue in their own right. With Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulling out of the media consortium organized debates, this year will be the first election with multiple independently organized debates on specific topics.

Perhaps it’s time for another first: a debate about the state and future of Canadian science. Once a world-leader in scientific research, recent decisions have eroded our science capacity and our international scientific reputation. It’s estimated that up to 5,000 federal scientists have lost their jobs, and over 250 research and monitoring programs and institutions have been closed. Our recently launched website called True North Smart and Free, documents dozens of examples of funding cuts to science, government scientists being silenced and policy decisions that ignore the best available evidence. This is essential public-interest science needed to protect Canadian’s health and safety, from food inspection to monitoring toxic chemicals in water.

Many Canadians, including our scientific community are speaking out. Even beyond our borders, the current government has been widely criticized for its treatment of science. In recent years scientists have stepped out of their labs in large rallies on Parliament Hill and across the country. By the thousands, Canadians have joined with them not only in protest but in a shared commitment to strong public science and evidence-based decision-making. Every major Canadian newspaper, including the Toronto Star, has written high-profile editorials on science. Even international media such as New York Times and the prestigious science journal Nature have commented on the decline in Canadian science and the treatment of our government scientists.

Political parties clearly want to discuss it as well. This last session of parliament saw an unprecedented focus on science policy issues with the NDP, Liberals, and Greens all introducing bills and motions aimed at improving the state of public-interest science in Canada.

With the federal election campaign underway, Canadians are looking to the federal party leaders to share their platforms. Yes, we want answers on the economy, security, public health and the environment. But we also need to know about the research and science capacity that provides the evidence on which economic, security, health, and environment decisions should be based. Only in this way can Canadians judge for themselves the true merits (or lack thereof) of the policy decisions our leaders claim are in our collective interest.

Katie Gibbs, PhD, is a biologist and the Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy. Alana Westwood is a PhD Candidate at Dalhousie University and research coordinator for Evidence for Democracy, a not-for-profit organization promoting the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making in Canada.

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