Has hope returned to public science?

This has been a tumultuous year, marked by contentious debates, violence and political upheaval. From Beirut to Paris to American campus shootings, we have held our breath waiting for the next crisis. But in Canada a different story is being told. The newly elected government is inspiring hope as they position the nation to help with serious global issues.

For universities and their researchers the new leadership is a welcome change as it promises to strengthen academic freedom and public science. Though sceptics abound and challenges accost us, the change offers hope that may gradually allow academics to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

New leadership

On 19 October 2015 Canadians voted in a new federal government. The Liberal Party replaced the Conservative Party, which has led the country since 2006. Normally this would not garner much relief, let alone interest, since Canada tends to rotate these parties once a decade. But this election was different.

Over the past nine years the Conservative Party had gradually reduced funding for scientific research that threatened their economic agenda. They had also closed important cultural archives and libraries they considered superfluous.

The lack of federal data coordination over the past decade was particularly devastating for social scientists; most notable was the removal of the much debated, long-form census in 2010.

Fortunately, these encroachments on scholarly inquiry might soon be reversed if the changes of the past month are any indication. The new government has begun its tenure with a dramatically progressive approach.

In their cabinet appointments they aimed for new levels of equity by balancing the number of men and women and appointing individuals connected to various minority communities.

They have broadened participation in climate change talks and made commitments to welcome Syrian refugees.

For academics, the crucial long-form census is again on the table offering the possibility that the restrictive scientific culture of the last decade might be nearing an end.

These changes may seem swift, but global events are unfolding quickly and Canada must clamour back to their position of a research-informed country working toward an equitable global community.

Advocates for change

In the restrictive scholarly climate of the last nine years, numerous academics across Canada have started small organisations to advocate for change. Organisations like Our Right to Know are collectives of professors who have spoken out as research centres and university programmes have lost funding.

In the recent election these organisations spread their message through concerts, films, viral messaging and social media to encourage a change in government. The change has happened and these organisations are now on hand to keep the new government accountable.


Although there is much cause for optimism in light of the recent changes in Canada, the wounds of the last nine years have left even the cheeriest optimist with a sceptical side. Can such a systematic attack on public science be reversed or are we so far down a road that the signposts are gone?

In some areas the numbers are staggering: more than 59,000 full-time jobs were lost at Statistics Canada; seven of the nine libraries in the department of fisheries and oceans were closed; publications from the National Research Council dropped from 1,991 to 436 between 2006 and 2012.

The list is long and deeply concerning. There is no quick fix to such widespread suppression of Canadian scientific endeavours. Though the new government has high ideals, many of the financial cuts of the last decade mirror a global climate of decreased funding for public science.

Perhaps more threatening to academic freedom is the changing working conditions of professors in Canada and around the world. Academic activists in Canada have traditionally been protected by structures such as tenure that guarantee their activism cannot be penalised. No longer is this the case.

The rise in part-time instructors with little job security has deeply undercut the collective ability of these academics to be politically active. Pressed for time and fearful of negative repercussions on their chance of full-time employment, these individuals are left with little agency to promote change.

Despite the challenges, the optimism is contagious. For the environmentalists whose research is finally getting the respect it deserves; for the scientist whose research on poverty will once again have the necessary census data; for the thousands of refugees who are suddenly welcome to a new country, the change is real and it makes a difference.

The new government is making a solid go of it and Canada’s academics are for the most part, alongside sharing the load.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a doctoral candidate in higher and international education in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, or OISE, University of Toronto, Canada.