24 Oct 2019   |   News

Canadian scientists breath ‘sigh of relief’ as Trudeau ekes out election victory

Research establishment expects minority government will keep science funds in place and be forced to step up its role on climate change

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. Photo: Adam Scotti (PMO)

Canada’s research establishment say the re-election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party on Monday was a good outcome for science, and should see the country step up its role in the global struggle against climate change.

Before Monday’s general election, researchers feared voters could make a hard turn and elect the opposition Conservative Party, which had pledged to cut public investment across the board.

“There was a sigh of relief with the outcome. Better than we expected,” said Rémi Quirion, the chief scientist of Quebec.

Science dodged a bullet with the result, agreed Philippe Tanguy, CEO of Polytechnique Montréal.

“The Tories (Conservatives) clearly wanted to cut everywhere,” Tanguy said. “For the past five years we have been catching up again following cuts they made while in government previously.”

Trudeau’s predecessor, Conservative Stephen Harper, cut science budgets when he came to office in 2006. “There was this detrimental impact on innovation during that period,” Tanguy said.

The Liberals won on a promise to ramp up spending in the economy. But because Trudeau’s government is now reduced to a minority, he will find it harder to pass legislation and budgets in the House of Commons, Quirion said.

Science funding could be vulnerable to the partisan whim of two smaller parties, the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Parti Québécois, both of which the Liberals may call on for support.

But researchers expect this arrangement will work for now. “The parties probably have no interest in defeating the government early on,” Quirion said.

“The new government will last for a while, maybe not the full mandate but maybe for two or three years. The opposition is fairly strong, but not strong enough,” said Quirion.

He says scientists “will have to stay very alert”, but he doesn’t foresee any major shift in research policy during Trudeau’s second term.

The prime minister has forged an easy consensus around science investment and has a decent record he can point to, argues Katie Gibbs, executive director of the campaign group Evidence for Democracy in Ottawa.

“Several decisions by his government demonstrated their overall support for science, including new investment and the un-muzzling of scientists through new policies to allow [them] to speak about their work,” Gibbs said.

She also points to the re-election of three prominent science proponents – Kirsty Duncan (the most recent science minister), Catherine McKenna and Navdeep Bains – as “a good sign”.  

Furthermore, Gibbs says that the Liberals, as well as the NDP and Greens, are committed to keeping a chief science adviser and departmental science advisers to provide advice and evidence to the government.

“It’s possible that this could be a new space for connecting external science to our government, and could integrate stronger connections between the EU and Canada,” she said.

Science issues got little attention in the campaign, although the Liberals pledged to prioritise social and paediatric cancer care and move more money into women’s health research.

With many voters who supported other parties making clear they care about the environment, climate science will have to get more attention, said Martha Crago, vice-principal of research and innovation at McGill University.

Trudeau’s government introduced a national carbon tax in 2019 – which the Conservatives pledged to scrap – and has set a target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

“But the PM also has the oil pipeline around his neck, so he will now have to make even stronger moves on climate change,” Crago said. The government is committed to expanding the Trans Mountain oil pipeline, which has faced legal hurdles and opposition from environmental campaigners.

Concerns about climate change took centre stage in this week’s election in Switzerland, in which the Green party got 13.2 per cent of the vote. Their historic gain was one of the main outcomes in a campaign that saw the right-wing Swiss People’s party returned as the largest party in parliament, despite a slip in its support.

Concerns about climate change will necessarily affect the Swiss research agenda, said Andreas Mortensen, professor of materials science and vice-president for research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

“One should expect a push for research on matters dear to [the Greens’] hearts. Those are matters already at the fore of the Swiss research and societal agenda, but therefore likely to become even more so,” he said.

Science budget protected

Back in Canada, Crago says Trudeau’s re-election means a key international initiative, the New Frontiers in Research Fund, should remain untouched.

The programme is to fund inter-disciplinary research, which is all open to international participation.

A programme specifically for international collaboration, to pay the way of Canadian researchers joining other countries’ research programmes, including those of the EU, could be launched by the end of 2020, Crago added.

Relations between Canada and Europe are warming in direct proportion to the cooling relationship between Canada and Donald Trump’s US.

Canada is among eight countries with which the European Commission has said it would like to discuss associate membership in its proposed seven-year, €94.1 billion Horizon Europe programme – and Canada appears keen to take up the offer.

The lack of a majority could see Trudeau more constrained overall in his second term, Crago said.

“When he was elected in 2015, it looked like he could walk on water – he now looks like a human being with human faults. 

“On the international front, he’ll surely be more constrained. You have to stick around at home more when you lead a minority government. Working with the other parties at least will keep him honest – he’ll have to do things in less cavalier ways,” Crago added.

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