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Alana Westwood of Evidence for Democracy says it will take years to recover data gaps for evidence-based decision making due to Harper’s cancellation of long form census data collection
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. In the results of Monday night’s election which brought victory to the Liberal party of Canada and an end to ten years of Conservative rule, the scientific community played an important role. Now that the Conservatives have been defeated they’re hoping for a new way forward in dealing with issues affecting science. The defeated Harper administration had been at constant odds with scientists, denying the reality of climate change, muzzling research, and de-funding marine science programs, leading many to accuse the government of unleashing a war on science, especially environmental science. The Liberal party has promised a progressive turn for scientists, saying in a statement, we will value science and treat scientists with respect. The party has also promised to appoint a chief science officer who will ensure accountability, transparency, and freedom for scientists throughout Canada. In addition, the new government would reinstate $40 million in funding for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Joining us now to discuss all of this is Alana Westwood. Alana is the research coordinator for Evidence for Democracy, a Canadian nonprofit which promotes evidence-based decision making in public policy. She’s also a Ph.D. candidate at Dalhousie University. Alana, thank you so much for joining us today. ALANA WESTWOOD: Thanks for having me. PERIES: Alana, let me begin with, what specifically was happening to federal scientists under former Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper? WESTWOOD: Yeah, we’ve seen a really extreme situation develop in the last ten years. Really widespread muzzling, accounts of which started to trickle down fairly early. But it was really after the Conservatives won a majority in their second term that the cuts came swift and hard. So over 200 Canadian scientific institutions, monitoring programs, water quality, air quality, toxicology, were completely cut. Thousands of scientists who were cut, over 2000 right at the beginning with many more to follow, as well as their support staff. Entire programs were gutted and completely lost capacity to do the work that they were mandated to do as part of the public service. PERIES: Now, this has been going on for ten years. Will the de-funding of these numerous scientific organizations have a lasting effect for science in Canada? WESTWOOD: Unfortunately it will. Many of the monitoring institutions in particular that were lost now have huge data gaps. One thing that comes up a lot that’s very important is the long-form census was taken away, which was the main way by which the government was able to keep track of demographic information about Canadian citizens. Conservatives removed that, and now we have this data gap that really, we’re just going to sort of have these dark years for the last four years of Canadian history, not really knowing what people were doing, where they were living, what their needs were during that time. PERIES: Alana, what type of policy should the Liberals introduce in order to reverse the scientific research that was curbed under the Harper government? WESTWOOD: Well, the Liberals have made some great promises. They’ve promised, as you mentioned, to bring in a chief science officer that would help allow scientists to be unmuzzled, to share their work freely, and also make sure that evidence was considered during parliamentary decisions. So that’s a great starting point. They have pledged funding for Fisheries and Oceans, as you mentioned, also for science for Parks Canada. It is a great start, but what we need is we need a lot more support for basic science. We need support for researchers to be able to do the kind of work that leads to, for example, the Nobel Peace Prize, or the Nobel Prize in science, which was won by a Canadian just two weeks ago. And that sort of thing comes from foundational research. PERIES: Now, Alana, Trudeau is planning to continue a Harper-type agenda when it comes to extraction and pipeline construction, and moreover has supported the Keystone XL pipeline. Do you think that this might curb efforts by the scientists to speak freely? WESTWOOD: Well, the Liberal government has promised to work with the provinces and to address climate change. However, there’s no concrete emissions targets in their platform, so it remains to be seen how that falls out. But I know that they do at least seem to be wanting to start off the next series of climate talks on a different foot. They’ve also planned to bring back federal environmental assessments, which were slashed under the Harper government. So that could mean a lot. This would allow for assessments of cumulative effects, looking at the effects of projects like Energy East or trans-Canada pipelines sort of across the range of the project. So it really depends how strong the legislation is around environmental assessment and whether or not it has any teeth. PERIES: Now, one curious thing for me, being an outsider from science looking in, is that it’s taken so long for the scientific community to protest, to take a position, to really crack down on this kind of de-funding and really come out in the way that they protested to get Harper out. Why didn’t they do this a long time ago? WESTWOOD: It’s actually a very unique thing that’s happened here in Canada. In 2012 we saw thousands of scientists march on Parliament Hill demanding a change, and that was the first time anything like that’s happened. Scientists in general tend to be a somewhat reclusive bunch. They’re very curious, driven by specific questions, and they want to focus on those questions rather than focus on political engagement. But this is the first time that I’ve seen in Canada, and in fact that I’ve really seen anywhere else, that en masse scientists are realizing that if they don’t take responsibility for their own voice no one else is going to do it. So now finally we’re seeing scientists standing up and saying the situation is so bad we’re not going to stand for this. It’s time to demand change. And that’s exactly why Evidence for Democracy was formed, as well as other groups that have gotten involved and really drove a lot of, a lot of the different thinking that we saw around this election. PERIES: Alana Westwood, she is the research coordinator for Evidence for Democracy, a Canadian nonprofit. I thank you so much for joining us, Alana, and I wish you lots of luck in moving forward with the Liberals here. WESTWOOD: Thank you so much. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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