Recent news stories following the federal election in Canada have assessed certain choices made by the new government and decided that Canada is finally becoming “friendly to science again” — but given how early it is (the new government was only sworn in on November 4) what’s actually changed, and what does it mean? Read on.
“Canada has a Minister of Science!” people keep telling me, as though it were a brand new thing Canada had never had before. This is not, strictly speaking, true. Canada had a Minister of Science from 1990 to 1995, and they also did from 2008 to, well, now. But it’s more complicated than that.
In the Canadian cabinet, there’s essentially a two-tier system. You have Ministers (or Ministers of the Crown) who head up key portfolios or Ministries, and below them you have Ministers of State, who basically work on temporary or special portfolios within a Ministry. In other countries, Ministers of State aren’t full members of the cabinet, but in Canada they are (which is why Canada has such large cabinets).
Up until 1990, Canada had a “Minister of Regional Industrial Expansion” and below that a “Minister of State for Science and Technology.” In 1990, they were merged under the then Conservative government headed by Brian Mulroney into a Minister of the Crown position called the “Minister of Science.” In 1995, under Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, it was merged with another Minister of the Crown position, the “Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs,” to make the new “Minister of Industry” position — again, a full Minister of the Crown position.
Things then ticked along without a “Minister of Science” until 2008, at which point, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper created a Minister of State position called the “Minister of Science,” under the “Minister of Industry.” This month, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued that position, appointing Kirsty Duncan to the post, and additionally renaming the “Minister of Industry” position as the “Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development.”
Let me say that again: since 2008, the Conservatives have had the exact same position Kirsty Duncan has been appointed to: the Minister (of State) of Science. It is not new. What is new is the name change of the “Minister of Industry” position.
But that’s not the whole story.
Because not one of the three “Ministers of Science” since 2008 was a professional scientist. The first, Gary Goodyear, was a chiropractor (I’m not even going to say it, but you know how I feel about it); the second was closer — Greg Rickford had a bachelor of science in nursing before becoming a career lawyer — but only had the portfolio for seven months; and the third, Ed Holder, well, all I can find on his previous experience seems to be a career in the insurance industry.
Kirsty Duncan is a little different. Duncan holds a PhD in geography from the University of Edinburgh. She taught meteorology and climatology at the University of Windsor for seven years, before suddenly developing an abiding interest in the spread of the Spanish Flu of 1918, after which she led a scientific expedition to try to find samples of the disease in the bodies of victims in the frozen ground of Norway (which she wrote a book about). She’s taught courses on medical geography and has served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Kirsty Duncan has been and is a scientist.
And that’s what’s turning a few heads.
You see, even having a “Minister of Science” post didn’t do much good for Canada in terms of basic science. The post was, if you take what Canada’s scientists were saying at face value, almost entirely subsumed by its position in the Ministry of Industry. While the Conservatives touted the successes they had getting Canadian science into the marketplace, the drive to turn every drop of science funding into an investment in a specific, profitable enterprise seemed to leave little room for applying the scientific, evidence-based worldview to the actual governing of the country or the management of its natural (and intellectual) resources.
Despite having a “Minister of Science,” the Conservative government nevertheless oversaw the elimination of the National Science Adviser position, “gutted” the Fisheries Act designed to protect fish habitats, undid environmental protections for Canada’s waterways, killed the long-form census that previous governments used to gather data to measure the effects of legislation and social programs, fought (embarrassingly) to keep asbestos off an international hazardous substances list, refused to take basically any positive action to fight climate change, and set in place rules effectively banning many scientists from speaking to the press without having their statements vetted in advance.
Frankly, it would be hard to do a poorer a job on science with or without a “Minister of Science.”
Which is why it’s interesting to see that in the first two weeks this new government has already taken steps to change some of those stances. The new “Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development” (formerly the “Minister of Industry”) may just be another career politician, but he’s already stated that the long-form census will be back in place in time for the 2016 census, ensuring data-driven policy will be able to resume. And while Trudeau himself may not be the climate change champion many are hoping for, the fact that they’ve renamed the “Minister of Environment” position as the “Minister of Environment and Climate Change” can’t be all bad.
“All the proof of a pudding,” as pretty much nobody says anymore, “is in the eating,” so we’ll have to wait and see. But putting a scientist in the “Minister of Science” position, not to mention letting scientists talk again, suggests that maybe — just maybe — things really are looking up for science in Canada again.
Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and techno-futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.