Well, it’s finally over — for now. The 2015 federal election results are in with a new majority Liberal government. What does it all mean for the future of science in this country?
First, a word about what happened. Science received more than its usual due for an electoral campaign. Readers will have noticed an unusual amount of attention given to federal science, more specifically the muzzling of government scientists and the use of evidence in decision making. This was different from past campaigns. Grass roots science movements have sprung up to shine a beacon on the silencing issue — unprecedented in Canadian science policy history. Evidence for Democracy, the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ Get Science Right and the Science Integrity Project, for example, have provided platforms to publicize the issue and to offer solutions. Aided by surveys from the Professional Institute for the Public Service (PIPSC), the chilling of public-interest science has received considerable media attention, both here and abroad.
The federal parties running against the Conservatives all made room in their platforms for improved science governance, ranging from a new Parliamentary Science Officer to the reinstatement of a national science adviser to the return of the long-form census. Pledges to increase funding to the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), the granting councils and health research, were also made.
On the innovation front, the parties have made promises to improve incentives, including tax credits for venture capital and R&D to selected funding to strategic sectors or clusters of the economy.
Science and innovation always receive some attention in these campaigns. Continuous partial attention is to be expected. With no natural constituency, science and innovation remain marginal as headline topics. Even the announcement of the latest Nobel Prize to a Canadian in physics was a mere ripple in the media’s and general public’s eyes.
But to the extent that science and innovation impact on the everyday lives of Canadians, that is when knowledge does and should matter. A powerful narrative from all sectors that makes clear why research and knowledge contributes to our health, our education and training, our culture, our environment and our economic well-being is ultimately what can make a difference to the voting public. It has been missing.
We now have a new majority government in Ottawa. The Liberal party has made promises to fund a $200 million innovation agenda with a focus on technology incubators and national network for business innovation and cluster support, research facilities and small-business assistance. In valuing and respecting scientists, it also commits to a chief science officer, restoring the long-form census and pledging to the use of accurate data in decision-making. A centrepiece is $300 million annually over the next four years for clean technologies and clean-tech manufacturing in the natural resources (forestry, mining, fisheries, energy and agriculture).
The Liberals have also committed to restore funding for freshwater research as well as make new investments in the Experimental Lakes Area. The party promised to devote $200 million over the next four years to ocean science and monitoring. Also pledged was an annual increase in the popular IRAP budget to the tune of $100 million.
There is a longer game, however. We will need a national vision that is collaborative with other governments in moving forward on a new agenda for a Canada that will be 150 years old in 2017. We should expect the scientific leadership in this country to come to the plate and deliver alongside the grass roots groups that have emerged. And we need an entrepreneurial and private sector that starts taking its responsibilities seriously about investing in the next frontier. Only then will Canada’s knowledge future be a true nation-building ‘projet de société’.
Paul Dufour is a Fellow and adjunct professor, Institute for Science, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa.