Articles We need to turn the volume up on this quiet revolution – a view from Canada

We need to turn the volume up on this quiet revolution – a view from Canada

Canada’s ‘evidence-based revolution’ may be in its infancy but it’s picking up steam, writes Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy. Faced with a hostile federal government organisations like Evidence for Democracy are mobilising public support for evidence and are focused on making evidence an election issue in 2015.

As a Canadian, it’s not exactly easy to offer insights on evidence-based decision-making to my UK counterparts, considering your situation is so much brighter than ours. As an excellent VOX article pointed out, Canada is lagging behind the UK and the US in the “quiet, evidence-based revolution” for public policy decisions to be supported by research and evidence. However the revolution is starting here, and ultimately we face the same challenges—creating the public and political support for informed government decision-making.

The UK has a long history of action in favour of evidence-based decision-making. We are envious of your outspoken royal societies and groups like CaSE, Sense about Science, Royal Statistical Society and the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Not to mention the government structures you have in place, like your network of Chief Scientific Advisers, who help to put evidence into the hands of decision-makers.

Federal hostility sparked an evidence revolution

Canada’s evidence-based revolution is new and born out of necessity. Our federal government has not been friendly to science and informed decision-making in recent years. Government science has seen drastic funding cuts, 9 out of 10 government scientists report not being able to communicate their research to the public, world renowned research facilities have had their funding cut, and our national census has been eliminated. This is a just very small sample.

In the summer of 2012, the scientific community responded with the largest science protest in Canadian history which epitomised the growing concerns around this issue and need for an organized response. The movement has been growing steadily from there. Evidence for Democracy (E4D) formed as a new organization promoting evidence-based decision-making, and other groups representing academic and government researchers have mobilised. We have a long way to go to catch up to the strong institutions in the UK, but we have been successful in another realm: getting the public on board. The Canadian government may be unreceptive, but its people are demanding informed public policy.

Evidence for Democracy: mobilising for public demand

For those of us in this community—a community that deals in the currency of science and evidence—it can be easy to talk only to others that share our values. While working to support strong communication between researchers and policy makers is important, long-term change requires getting the public on our side. At E4D, building public demand is at the core of our mission. Our goal is to mobilise scientists, researchers and graduate students to be ambassadors for evidence-based decision-making. We need to empower them by giving them the language and tools they need to engage with the public and policy makers on these issues.

Over the past few months we’ve had a lot of success building public support and engagement around a bill before Parliament to bring back our mandatory census. Despite it being a nerdy, technical issue (and very little chance of the bill being passed by the majority Conservative government that cut the census), thousands engaged on this issue. All the major Canadian media outlets wrote articles and editorials on the detrimental impacts of losing the census, thousands sent emails asking their Members of Parliament to support the bill, and we partnered with a number of groups on a social media campaign using the #itmakescensus hashtag which had excellent pick up. Who would have imagined such a mass public outcry, whose chief demand was “we need better data”?

The science pledge: making ‘evidence-based’ an election issue

Our next federal election looms this fall. For the first time, there will be a strong push for science and evidence-based decision-making in the lead up to, and during, an election. It is an exciting opportunity. In addition to making policy recommendations to the political parties and evaluating their track records, we’ll be launching a Science Pledge aimed at getting both political candidates and individuals to declare their support for science and smart government decision-making. The next stage of the evidence-based revolution will not result from technical discussions held behind closed doors, but at the ballot box, in the hands of each Canadian voter.

Interested in reading other blogs in our series from the USA and Canada? Check out ‘America Plays Moneyball: promoting data-driven government‘ & ‘What is Evidence-Based Policy?‘.


Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.