PublicScience.ca

Evidence based planning has taken a hit in Canada and public scientists have been replaced by “media relations” officers as the purvayers of truth, compelling the union that represents public scientists to take action.

“If the science isn’t supported … then you’re going to find that decisions are going to be made more at the political level,” Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said Monday as the union launched a website called publicscience.ca. (CBC)

PublicScience.ca is a new initiative sponsored by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

The site aims to highlight science done for the public good – much of it taxpayer-funded and carried out by government scientists – and to “mobilize” scientists and the public to pressure politicians to support it. It features interviews with federal scientists about their work, along with interviews with science policy experts. (CBC)

Part of what inspired the creation of PublicScience.ca was the cancellation of the Long-Form Census

The decision to replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary questionnaire over the objection of professional statisticians was one more step in what the union calls a worrying trend on the part of the government to discount the importance of the work of its scientists. (Globe and Mail)

This was also echoed in the CBC article

“The recent decision to end the mandatory long-form census is the latest step in a worrying trend away from evidence-based policy-making,” said the union in a news release announcing the campaign. “Restrictive rules are curtailing media and public access to scientists, while cutbacks to research and monitoring limit Canada’s ability to deal with serious threats and potential opportunities.”

Corbett said what happened to the long-form census despite evidence provided by Statistics Canada scientists is also happening in other departments. He worked as a scientist at Natural Resources Canada for more than two decades before taking a leave to do union work.

This initiative combined with Open Government discussions over at the Information Commissioner’s Office and the innovation of some of Canada’s Open Data Cities (Nanaimo, Vancouver, District of North Vancouver, Calgary Edmonton, London, Missassauga, Toronto & Ottawa – see datalibre.ca resources), data sharing mandated by science funding like IPY and the Canadian Institute of Health Research Policy on Open Access might lead us to have real conversations about science, technology and informed social policy in Canada.

2 comments

I am glad to hear that not everyone has given up on attempts to restore the Long Form Census. I don’t need to be convinced that the substitute, which will not be mandatory, is not likely to come up with data that would be comparable in terms of quality or value. At first we were told that the Long Form had to be scrapped as people objected to some invasive questions. Subsequently, the “hundreds of e-mails” from complainants turned out to be a pathetic handful, from individuals who probably have no clue how the data is collected, processed and utilised by governments, institutions, businesses, and individuals. Both the private and public sectors rely on the accuracy of this data and we are all beneficiaries.

Clement then went on to say that even if one complaint was filed, government had an obligation to investigate and take remedial action. If only the Harper autocracy was half as responsive to the publics’ concerns about policy shifts the Conservatives are trying to implement, we would not have to endure the puerile mud-slinging and ideological slugfests that has replaced civilised debate in Parliament.

If the threat of jail for anyone refusing to complete the census was such a heinous threat, removing or amending that offending clause without affecting the rest of the law, would have sufficed. Sometimes, a little pressure is necessary to remind citizens of their obligations to society: filling out a census form once every five years is one such, and surely not much to ask. It is not unlike filing a tax return.

The Bank of Canada has been using Moral Suasion to persuade chartered banks to adjust their prime lending rates, when it is deemed necessary to counteract currency fluctuations, inflation and other economic forces. Banks are not forced to change their lending rates by the central bank, but when the Bank of Canada alters its own rates, banks tend to follow suit. This isn’t much different from requiring a fraction of the population to spend a few extra minutes every half-decade and answer a few questions.

What might appear to some as an inquisitive questionnaire, should not be so regarded; after all, the individual responses are fed into a “hopper”, thereby rendering them anonymous. As such no ones privacy is jeopardised.

Some may argue that accidental leaks have occasionally surfaced. Most are promptly dealt with once they are discovered, and steps are taken to prevent reoccurrences. No one would expect organisations to simply stop collecting data for fear of compromising confidentiality. So what motivated the Harper administration to stubbornly ignore the advice of professional statisticians?

Nothing that makes sense to me and many others. As such citizens have every right to demand an explanation, requiring the administration to show cause why the long form census was scrapped and justify its substitution by a voluntary census in the face of strong objections raised by statisticians.

This is a critical issue that needs to be kept alive. Public memory is, I fear, much too short. And this is not the first time Conservatives have counted on a combination of apathy, ignorance and short memory, to implement policies that are shaped by ideological opinions rather than logical reasoning and consensus.