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Science advocacy in Canada: What is the role of evidence and scientists in a democracy?

Scientists dedicate their life to research in the hopes of pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Research can improve life for everyone. Public interest science in particular can help improve government decision-making. But in recent years, Canadian politicians have dismissed the conclusions of federal scientists as “just opinion,” cut funding to critical data collection, and crafted policy that contradicts the best available evidence. Public and political support for science cannot be taken for granted.

The scientific community is best positioned to understand and explain what is lost when governments ignore evidence, cut research programs, or muzzle publicly-funded scientists. Scientists can answer: Why is it worthwhile to pursue freshwater research at the Experimental Lakes Area? Why bother with a long-form census? Why study the nature of matter if there isn’t a clear technology that can be commercialized in a couple of years?

Scientists, through their expertise, have an important role to play in democracy. Their objective position as knowledge-holders makes them uniquely capable of informing the electorate. The best and appropriate tactics for doing so are debatable. The image of lab coats marching on Parliament Hill in 2012 was a surprising sight. There had never been a mass public protest by scientists and their supporters. The media took note. A new civil society movement was forming around ideas many had taken for granted: science should be funded, scientists should be free to talk about their research, and evidence should inform government decisions.

From this event came a new national organization: Evidence for Democracy.

This talk will discuss the major government decisions, questions, and advocacy efforts over the last several years that have driven the increased attention on the science-policy interface. It will also provide an overview of how scientists can make their voice heard by the public, policymakers, and politicians. Finally, the talk will highlight recent successes as well as current challenges and opportunities for science advocacy in Canada.

Dan Weaver is a Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of Physics and an Ontario-certified teacher. He is also a member of Evidence for Democracy’s Board of Directors, where he has contributed to national science advocacy campaigns, events, and strategic planning since 2013.