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Policy & Practice

The fault lines of the politics of science policy are firmly in place

The Liberals claim that “science is at the centre of everything the government does” – yet all we have seen and heard are symbolic gestures and feel-good rhetoric.

BY CRESO SÁ | DEC 06 2019

In previous columns, I discussed how the Liberals and Conservatives have taken on ostensibly disparate positions on science since the 2015 federal election (here and here). This year comes to a close with a Liberal minority government in Ottawa, and the fault lines of the politics of science policy are firmly in place.

The recently announced Liberal cabinet brings what appear to be cosmetic changes to the science file. Former Science Minister Kirsty Duncan is no longer in it, which sparked confusion among casual observers who believed that the elimination of her position signalled the termination of the science ministry or the downgrading of the science agenda. In reality, science was and remains part of the renamed Ministry of Innovation, Science, and (now) Industry (rather than Economic Development), where Minister Navdeep Bains continues at the helm.

Arguably, these reactions show that appearances have been central to the modus operandi of this government. Minister Duncan was an active, and generally well-liked, champion for the Trudeau government’s science platform. She carried the torch of team science over the last four years, becoming vividly associated with the launch of initiatives such as the Fundamental Science Review, the creation of the chief science advisor position, and the introduction of equity provisions in the Canada Research Chairs program. She talked a good talk, but her role did not in fact give her much authority to change the course of science policy in the country. From the start, her mandate was mostly defined around building bridges with members of cabinet, which was likely good experience for her new role of deputy house leader.

Upon the announcement of the new cabinet, Minister Bains took to Twitter to thank Dr. Duncan for her dedication to placing science in “its rightful place back at the centre of everything our government does.” He indicated that he will take over her responsibilities, which he was already formally responsible for. Presumably, he will now make time to place science at the centre of everything the government does.

This kind of sloganeering has been common since the 2015 campaign, which seems to be the strategic moment the Liberals can’t get out of. Such was the real and perceived hostility of the Harper Conservatives to science that the Liberals embraced the role of enlightened advocates. Perhaps the lowest hanging fruit their predecessors left behind was the sheer absence of any intelligible articulation of where they stood on the science file, which the Liberals seized upon with gusto. Virtue signalling became a first line of response.

However, tangible steps like the 2018 infusion of funding into the granting councils have been marred by the decoupling of rhetoric and the reality constructed by the Liberals themselves. The so-called largest increase in fundamental research funding felt almost like too little, too late, after the expectations created by the release of the Fundamental Science Review in 2017. Of course, no government is under the obligation to follow to the letter policy recommendations from a task force it puts together. But the lack of formal acknowledgement of and response to the evidence-based recommendations made in the report are glaringly at odds with the talk of this government.

When asked about her main accomplishments over the past year as chief science advisor at the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, Mona Nemer started with the creation of a network of science advisors across government departments. Over the past four years, the government has indeed not been shy about increasing the number of appointments with “science” in their job titles. That is not a bad thing. We just do not hear much about how “science is at the centre of everything the government does.” Things get much fuzzier when the conversation turns to the bold promises of promoting evidence-based decision making that this government has been vocal about. Queried on how her role has impacted policy making, Dr. Nemer suggested the question should be asked to politicians.

If the Liberal rhetoric has much hot air, the Conservatives have retreated into a resolute non-position regarding science policy. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has been more likely to embrace anti-scientific positions than to articulate a full sentence on this file. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who quickly dismissed Ontario’s first chief scientist upon taking office, promised to make his own appointment, which never materialized. It certainly never will.

Of course, science is not a hot button political issue in Canada – it is not among the main concerns of voters anywhere. Hence, that is not an explanation for the narrow scope of our national political debate on science. Nor should this realization function as an a priori dismissal of any possibility of improvement. In years ahead, we need policy actors to move beyond feel-good rhetoric and symbolic gestures on one hand, and avoidance or antagonism to science on the other.

Creso Sá
Creso Sá is the vice-dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is also the editor of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.
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  1. Andrew Park / December 11, 2019 at 15:08

    Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose.

    That governments everywhere pay lip service to science while implementing fact-free policy should be no surpose to anyone. That Liberal governments extol evidence-based policies until the evidence threatens their extreme devotion to centreist status quo is simply a continuation of business as usual in resource dependant, science-challenged Canada. To some degree, I respect the Conservatives more than the Libs. At least they have the honesty (or stupidity?) to wear their anti-scientific rhetoric like a badge of virue.

    Regardless of which party forms the government, a continuing fact of life is the system justification that policy is designed to defend. It’s therefore hard to see evidence based policy as getting anything like its due when so many scientific findings have the potential to threaten that system.