Scitech  The research behind the ballot

How science can (and should) shape the vote

One of the leading hot topics for the coming year is the impending federal election, the first in four years since the Conservative Party won a majority of seats back in 2011. In total, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been at the helm of the government for eight years. More than ever, the place of science in present and future government policies is among the main issues all Canadian political parties must consider, and scientists are pushing to have a place in the minds of voters.

The Harper government has been accused in recent years of “scientific muzzling,” where scientists are prevented from sharing their findings and conclusions. It is also a term used by the non-profit organization Democracy Watch Canada in its campaign to advocate for the right for publicly-funded researchers to freely address the media and share their findings without censorship. The situation has also attracted the attention of comedian Rick Mercer, who spoke out about it on his CBC show, the Rick Mercer Report, last year.

“For a long time, there were very active scientists advising the government,” says Catherine Potvin, a professor in McGill’s Biology department who specializes in neotropical ecology. “We now feel there is this vacuum of scientific advice.”

Some notorious cases of alleged muzzling include Kristi Miller, who was prevented for months from discussing her sockeye salmon research with journalists, and David Tarasick, who had to wait two weeks before addressing his work on ozone loss in the Arctic. Miller’s case generated considerable controversy. Her findings brought significant insight into the crash of salmon populations on the West Coast, and were significant enough to be published in the peer-reviewed research journal Science in 2011. However, Ottawa officials denied her the permission to speak on the subject for an extended period of time, resulting in the government being heavily criticized by the scientific community.

The challenge for many researchers now is not only to deliver results, but also to be heard and to bring attention to the information they provide. Government-funded scientists are left attempting to connect with the taxpaying citizens, who have provided the money used to conduct their research. Potvin emphasizes the importance of such an exchange: “Scholars should share information with the public. People have invested in me and my colleagues, and I consider it is the time I give back by sharing my information.”

“It is often assumed that only federal action matters to fight climate change, which is not the case. Environment needs to be addressed by all levels of government – municipal, provincial, and federal.”

— Catherine Potvin, professor of Biology at McGill

The situation does not only concern Canadians, as it has also attracted the attention of the international scientific community. Last October, 815 scientists from 32 different countries signed a letter addressed to Stephen Harper, bearing the headline, “Earth to Canada: Science Needs You,” in an effort to advocate for more freedom for scientists receiving funding from the government. This highlights the need for a worldwide mobilization of scientists to solve modern problems faced by the planet: a spirit of collaboration that can be hindered by political intentions.

At the forefront of the science in politics debate is the topic of environmental protection, since Canada’s actions against climate change have been less-than-stellar from an international perspective, following its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol and its continued development of the Albertan tar sands. As the next meeting of the United Nations (UN) Framework on Climate Change Convention conferences in December approaches, Canadian environmental policies over the next year will be crucial in defining the image the country projects in the international fight against global warming. Climate change activists hope to see a change of approach in Canada’s position on the environment following the elections, before the meeting takes place. In an interview with CBC last month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself encouraged Canada to take a more proactive role, citing the need to seek an economy relying on cleaner energy resources.
“We are currently very far from the leadership position,” said Potvin. “In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, Canada has been a leader, notably around the Rio Convention, with Canadian Maurice Strong being a most important player. Now, we are left to catch up with the middle group.”

Strong, a businessman from Canada, took on numerous UN appointments at that time, including a position as the Secretary-General of the Earth Summit in 1992. Thanks to his work, the environment was put on the international agenda at the UN.

When asked if there are any Canadian climate change policies on the right track, Potvin makes a distinction: “It is often assumed that only federal action matters to fight climate change, which is not the case. Environment needs to be addressed by all levels of government – municipal, provincial, and federal. Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, Canada’s major cities, have several good policies in place, and the Quebec and British Columbia governments are also making progress. As for the federal government, changing regulations for fuels used by cars and trucks was a step in the right direction, although small. The most needed change in the future is to put a price on carbon.”

Voters may be left to wonder how to consider issues like environment when election time comes. The first move is to consult the appropriate resources. “The Conservatives currently have no climate change policy. The [New Democratic Party] does have one, elaborated by Jack Layton, and the Liberals are in the process of developing it.

“Voters should read policies by all parties,” Potvin says.To make sense of those, comparing them with the opinions of experts may be a good approach. “My colleagues and I will propose a climate change action plan in March, to the best of our knowledge, which can become a tool to use as a benchmark comparison before people make up their minds.”

Beyond the struggles over current federal policies, the media coverage received by science issues during electoral campaigns can be vital for the information to be shared properly. “There is currently a large interest from the media in climate change,” says Potvin. The 2015 race is therefore an opportunity to put the spotlight on why science ultimately matters by engaging everyone in the conversation.

Time will tell if science gets its shining moment in the electoral race, but once the polls are closed, one challenge will remain: can political ambitions be put aside to truly pay attention to what our experts have to say?