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Canada is finally ending its war on science

Canada's new prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
Canada's new prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
GEOFF ROBINS AFP

Over the past nine years, Canada has been a pretty dreary place for scientists.

Under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, the country made headlines for restricting communications by federal scientists, shutting down important research stations, phasing out the role of federal science adviser, and generally ignoring evidence in policymaking. As a New York Times editorial about Harper's Canada put it: "[This] war against science has been even more damaging to the capacity of Canadians to know what their government is doing."

In fact, the state of affairs was so bad, researchers took to the streets in protest, hundreds of scientists from around the world wrote letters to Harper begging for change, and science was propelled into a pretty major election issue this October.

But there's evidence that under a new government, the war on science is finally over. In the weeks since Canada's new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, won a Liberal majority, he's already made some major reforms.

1) Scientists can now talk in public

Under Stephen Harper, journalists who requested information or interviews from federal scientists or health policy officials could expect long delays, refusals, or replies — often after a deadline — that didn't answer your questions at all.

This was a response to a mandate from the prime minister's office: Scientists working for the federal government (as well as anyone working for a public health agency) had to seek approval before speaking to the media.

The results were disastrous. Researchers were essentially silenced. It was hard to know what was going on with health care decision-making As a Maclean's magazine story on the Harper government's "Orwellian" approach stated, "Ottawa’s obsession with controlling the message has become so all-encompassing that it now threatens both the health of Canada’s democracy and the country’s reputation abroad."

An example: I once asked the Public Health Agency of Canada for information about the government's use of evidence in stockpiling the flu antiviral Tamiflu. The responses I got were so convoluted and took so much time, I decided to put in an official Access to Information request for all the notes and correspondence related to my earlier media queries. I learned that my measly request — deemed "medium impact" by the government — generated at least 195 pages' worth of internal work, and that didn't include all the redacted files I couldn't see.

Now Trudeau is unmuzzling researchers once again. On Friday, the new science and innovation minister, Navdeep Bains, said federal scientists would now be free to talk to the press, according to the Toronto Star.

"Our government values science and will treat scientists with respect. That is why government scientists and experts will be able to speak freely about their work to the media and the public," he said in a statement. "We are working to make government science fully available to the public and will ensure that scientific analyses are considered in decision making."

This is a major reform. It means that all the important information researchers gather can finally be communicated to the public again. It means more transparency in government. It means an end to the demoralization of Canadian researchers. And it means fewer headaches for journalists who are trying to do their job.

2) Trudeau restored the mandatory census

In 2010, citing privacy concerns, Harper abolished the mandatory longform census — the most detailed federal source of data on Canadians — and replaced it instead with a voluntary census.

This decision drew an outcry from researchers and the public. That census data was used to guide decisions about social programs and infrastructure. It was used by businesses, nonprofits, and academics to track changes in the Canadian economy. It was basically Canada's most reliable source of detailed information about itself at the national level. And overnight, it was gone.

"The replacement voluntary census brought in by the Harper government was a boondoggle — millions more expensive, considerably less reliable and disastrous or long-term policy evaluation and planning," wrote Ottawa-based academic Steven Hoffman (also a Vox contributor) in the Huffington Post.

But last week, as soon as Trudeau was sworn in, he announced that he'd reinstate the mandatory census — a victory for supporters of better data to inform policymaking. As he said at his swearing-in ceremony, "We committed to a government that functions based on evidence and facts, and long-form censuses are an important part of making sure we're serving constituents in our communities."

3) Canada now has two science ministers

Under Harper, the Canadian government had a business-oriented approach to research. The former PM phased out the federal science adviser, opting instead to put the nation's scientific portfolio in the hands of a junior minister of state.

Harper also fired thousands of federal scientists and cut research funding (particularly on basic science) such that Canada's R&D spending dropped to 23rd from 16th among 41 comparable countries during the first five years of his tenure.

In a turnaround, Trudeau immediately reestablished the minster of science posting, appointing Kirsty Duncan, a medical geographer from the University of Toronto, to the job.

Trudeau also appointed Bains, a politician, to the role of minister of innovation, science, and economic development.

The roles are meant to be complementary: According to the government, Duncan will be tasked with ensuring "that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions," while Bains's role is meant to be more applied. Two definitely seems better than zero.