Canada at 150: Interview with Katie Gibbs

By Katie Gibbs/Lauren Lehman

My vision for Canada in the next 25 years is that we will see improvements in the way in which our government functions and makes decisions. I hope to see a shift towards policies that are informed by evidence and not just assumptions. I think increasing trust in government is more important now than ever considering what has been happening globally. Across the globe we’re seeing people becoming increasingly distrustful of government and although we’ve been lucky to not see this same trend in Canada, I still believe that we have to focus on strengthening public trust in government through evidence based decision making, transparency and accountability. Personally, I see Canada becoming a bastion of good governance and part of being a strong global leader means investing in research.

Unfortunately, we are currently still falling behind internationally due to funding cuts from the last decade. Therefore, I believe we are at a turning point of deciding whether Canada is going to be a global leader or not because when compared to other countries our government investment in research spending as a percentage of GDP is far below where we should be. As of now, we aren’t even in the top 30% of countries. Although we may see ourselves as a global leader in progressive research and informed government decision making we really aren’t. However, I believe we have the potential to be.

I think the issue of increasing government spending on research is important not only for scientists but for all Canadians as this research is needed to inform evidence based decision making. Research truly is the life blood of innovations that improve our health, protect our environment, grow our economy and increase our quality of life. By putting resources into research and being supportive of recommendations made by researchers we can start to become a strong global leader. However, Canada will need a spending boost of around 3 billion dollars over the next three years to support researchers and train the next generation of innovators.

It is also important that we create the kind of environment that helps and motivates students to pursue advanced degrees in STEM. Right now it is very difficult for PhD students and early career researchers to find adequate funding. It’s a major issue since we have all these young people who are so passionate about science and that want to make a career in STEM but they’re struggling. Therefore, in the next 25 years I would like to see Canada become the kind of place that doesn’t just inspire students to go into STEM but one that also encourages students once they’ve made that decision and supports them in pursuing advanced degrees and getting good jobs. I would also love to see Canada be a leader in ensuring that these STEM students reflect the diversity and gender distribution of the country since that’s obviously a major issue right now. I hope that 25 years down the road this no longer remains an issue.

We will also have to revaluate how we do environmental assessments for any sort of big infrastructure project over the next 25 years. Canada is currently in the process of overhauling our environmental assessment system and it will have a huge impact on the future of our country in terms of what big projects are approved and which aren’t. It is my hope that we move towards a system where these projects are assessed with robust and independent science with a process that has meaningful public consultation and transparency permeating every aspect of the assessment. I believe these concepts will go a long way to both improving how governments work and operate and to making governments more effective and efficient.

Much has happened over the last 25 years and we’ve seen a lot of ebbs and flows in government support for science but the lows of the last decade were so deep that we haven’t quite gotten out of them. I think there’s still much that needs to be done for us to move forward from this damage especially in regards to funding for science and public support of government. We currently have a government that says they support openness and transparency but it’s going to take more than words to really change things and rebuild public trust.

It is also important that we see improvements on these issues take a more constant trajectory. For example, we are gaining a chief science advisor which is a good step forward; however this is not a new position to Canada. We previously had a chief science advisor until that position was eliminated in 2008. In that same way, back in the 90s there was a great document created called SAGE (sound advice for government effectiveness) which outlined how governments could support evidence based decision making. Unfortunately, this document was never fully put into practise. Therefore, it is clear that these are issues that come and go depending on the government in power. However, I hope that we can make meaningful progress on these issues in the next 25 years so we aren’t always just rebuilding what we previously had.

Katie Gibbs is a scientist, organizer and advocate for science and evidence-based policies. While completing her PhD at the University of Ottawa researching threats to endangered species, she was one of the lead organizers of the ‘Death of Evidence’ rally which was one of the largest
science rallies in Canadian history. Katie is a co-founder and Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, a national, non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that promotes science integrity and the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making. Katie is frequently asked to comment on science policy issues and has been quoted and published in numerous media outlets, including the CBC, The Hill Times, the Globe and Mail and the National Post. She was interviewed by Lauren Lehman, a Pearson Centre intern who is pursuing studies at the U. of Ottawa

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