Researchers try to make science a federal election issue

Members of Canada's long-silent scientific research community are speaking out more during this year's federal campaign as they desperately try to make science an election issue.

Group not campaigning for specific party, but hoping scientists won't be muzzled

Making science an election issue

8 years ago
Duration 2:31
Featured VideoMany Canadian scientists are speaking out against government cuts and some are even running as candidates

Members of Canada's long-silent scientific research community are increasingly speaking out during this year's federal campaign as they desperately try to make science an election issue. 

Jules Blais, a biology professor at the University of Ottawa, says that while he's non-partisan, he and others are speaking out about protecting independent scientific research. (CBC News)
Academics and researchers have loudly criticized the federal government's handling of science policy, from the elimination of approximately 5,000 science-related jobs, the scrapping of the long form census, the closure of several environmental and pollution research projects to the inability of federal scientists to speak publicly about their work.
Jules  Blais, a biology professor at the University of Ottawa, calls cuts to science-related jobs "targeted strikes."

Like many Canadian scientists, Blais considers himself non-partisan and said he's not campaigning for any particular party, but that he and others are speaking out for the need to protect independent scientific research.

"Science has always been apolitical by its nature, but in recent years because of the dramatic changes that we're seeing in the way science is being done, and science is being conducted, it's increasingly a political issue," said Blais.

Evidence for Democracy speaking out

One vocal group, Evidence for Democracy, was born out of discontent in 2012 over the diminishing role of evidence in government decision-making, and this is their first chance to speak out during a federal election.

Scott Findlay, another biology professor and co-founder of Evidence For Democracy, says the role of national science advisor should be reinstated. (CBC News)
Scott Findlay, a biology professor at the University of Ottawa and the co-founder of the grass-roots, non-partisan organization, said he has demands from any party seeking his vote, including that they reinstate the role of the national science advisor. The government eliminated the role in 2008.

"This is ridiculous, we're the only G7 country that doesn't have one," said Findlay.

"Given all the concern about muzzling of federal scientists, I think we need to have a government that makes explicit the policy that governs how science and under which conditions scientists can communicate their science to the public."

NDP candidate says department understaffed

While Findlay and Blais aren't flying the flag of any particular party, other Canadian scientists are.

Nancy Tremblay, an NDP candidate in Orleans, says she lost more than half of staff members due to federal budget cuts. (Julie Ireton/CBC)
Pollution scientist Nancy Tremblay is running as a candidate for the NDP in Orleans after she was given permission to take an unpaid leave from her government job to run in her home riding.

Tremblay said her program in environmental pollution lost more than half of its staff due to budget cuts.    

"Fifteen people can't do the same amount of work that 40 people were doing," said Tremblay. "How do you decide what gets cut and what's not important anymore? It was very much challenging."

Union says damage has been done

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada represents Tremblay and many other federal scientists. Union president Debi Daviau calls this election crucial for her members and she's not surprised scientists are speaking out. She said government interference in public interest science was a big miscalculation.

"These are people who would have accepted no wage increases and they're people who would have accepted to give up their sick leave," said Daviau. "But when you started eliminating their work, the work they know to be critical to the health and safety of Canadians, the work that they've dedicated their lives to, you picked a fight on the wrong subject with the wrong people."

Daviau said cuts have been significant enough that some federal programs might not survive, even if there is a change of government on Oct. 19.

But Ted Hsu, the out-going MP for Kingston and the Islands and former Liberal party science critic, doesn't think federal science is irreparable. Before his life in politics Hsu was a federal government scientist himself, working at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories.

"Many, many scientists have left. You won't be able to replace the expertise overnight. You'll have to build confidence in the scientific community. It'll take many years to rebuild the scientific capacity of the federal government," said Hsu.

'We'd love if this would all disappear'

Lynn Quarmby, a molecular biologist and Green Party candidate, said federal science policy can be fixed under a new regime. She said the cuts have meant less money for academic programs including hers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. She said basic, discovery research has been lost in favour of research that can be commercialized or funded by the private sector. 

Liberal, NDP and Green party platforms all call for the unmuzzling of scientists and the reestablishment of a national science advisor.

No Conservative candidate was made available after several requests by CBC, nor was the Conservative platform on science forwarded to CBC.

Biologist Scott Findlay said it's regrettable that scientists have to campaign and protest when they really just want to do their work.

He said he and fellow researchers hope after Oct. 19, the independence of public science never has to be an issue again.

"We'd love if this would all disappear and we can all get back in our labs," said Findlay.


Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior investigative reporter with CBC Ottawa. She's also the multi-award winning host of the CBC investigative podcasts, The Banned Teacher found at: and The Band Played On found at: You can reach her at