Scientists 'cautiously optimistic' about new government

The newly-elected Liberal government has promised a different approach to dealing with scientists, who many critics said were muzzled under the Conservative government.

Critics have argued federal scientists were muzzled, censored under Conservatives

Environment Canada scientist Tony Turner was suspended with pay after recording the protest song 'Harperman.' He later retired. (YouTube)

The newly-elected Liberal government has promised a different approach to dealing with scientists, who many critics said were muzzled under the Conservative government. But many scientists seem to be taking a "wait and see" attitude.

Liberal promises during the campaign included more freedom for Canadian science, less of a brain drain, and more investment in brain-powered, rather than natural resource-powered, industries.

But there's more to it than just where the money goes. Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau has promised to unmuzzle scientists, as it were. 

In recent years, any federally employed scientist — including those with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada, Health Canada, or any subsidiary — has faced restrictions when sharing work at conferences and with the media, and has had their work censored and their academic freedom limited. This was intended to control messaging, and to control the data being generated.

I want to point out here that much of the work done by these federal scientists has absolutely no impact on the running of the country. But it was a blanket tossed over the entire industry.

No immediate changes for scientists

Scientists rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in September 2013 as Canadian scientists and their supporters held demonstrations across the country, calling on the federal government to stop cutting scientific research and muzzling its scientists. (The Canadian Press)
With a new government coming into power, the general mood in the scientific community seems to be relief.  It is, as scientists both within and outside the government told me, "cautious optimism."

But in doing research on this topic, I tried to speak to a few government scientists and was, as usual, routed through the media office minders. I was told that although there is a change in government in principle, nothing has changed yet in practice, as there is no new minister and no new mandate.

But those just on the outside of federal science are now free to speak their mind and look ahead.

Former Environment Canada scientist Tony Turner became famous last month with his "Harperman" song, which criticized outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper's so-called "attack on science." He was suspended with pay and later retired.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," he said. "I think, you know, all political parties promise lots. So I think they plan to designate a chief science officer, and I think that's a good thing. I'm not sure we've had one before."

That's seen as an important step. A chief scientific officer would essentially be the head of the scientific establishment in Canada, and could promote and encourage science. 

But reversing some of the policies the outgoing government was criticized for could be difficult. The machine of censorship, media control, and regulation is firmly entrenched. We may simply find that, without a very clear mandate from the new government about what the role of federal science is, and how open it could and should be, the machine may simply keep running.

But open and free science is the only way science can be done. Scientists need to be free to collaborate, share their work, and reveal their findings.  Government scientists are scientists first, and if they gather data that goes against government policy or vision, they need to be free to share that.  Science is never done in isolation.  It is collaboration, honesty, and openness that make data valid.

Suzuki criticizes Liberals 

As for one of the key scientific issues facing the country — climate change — Trudeau has pledged action, and campaigned hard on changes to Canada's climate policy.

Environmentalist David Suzuki has accused the Liberal Party of inconsistent policy on environmental issues. (CBC)
But for many he has not gone far enough. In a recent media interview, David Suzuki said he spoke with Trudeau and things got a bit heated.

Suzuki has accused Liberal policies of being all over the map — supporting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and the Alberta oilsands, but opposing the Northern Gateway pipeline, for example.

But there's a huge climate change conference coming up in Paris at the end of November that will test where the new government stands on climate change and meeting targets on greenhouse gas emissions reduction.

The Harper government repeatedly flouted carbon emission reduction targets, and Canada is lagging behind other G7 countries in taking the threat of climate change seriously. So there's still work to do there.

I share in the optimism felt in a lot of the scientific community. As one tweet stated eloquently, "Forget marijuana, I'm excited for science to be legal again."


Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur has been the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One since 2013. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and studied how worm gonads develop. She now teaches at the University of Alberta as a contract lecturer in cell biology and genetics.


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