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Knowledge matters in our election

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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Joan Sangster, President, Canadian Historical Association and Stephen Toope, President, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Following five televised leaders’ debates in the 2015 Canadian federal election, Joan Sangster, President of the Canadian Historical Association and Stephen Toope, President of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences weigh in on the critical but often overlooked role of expert research, knowledge production and reliable evidence in shaping our understanding of the urgent political issues debated during elections.

Ah, nothing like election debates to demonstrate just how contested “facts” can be. In all five debates to date, party leaders backed up their assertions with facts, each claiming that only they have true facts, and contradicting each other’s facts. Surely, then, expert research, creating reliable evidence, and weighing its importance, should be election-worthy issues. Yet, too often research is seen as esoteric—relevant to the world of postsecondary education, but not the rest of society. Certainly the questions of how we support and encourage research don’t grab our front pages in the way a refugee crisis, a precarious economy or hard social policy choices do. We admit it: the challenge of research or knowledge production is not very sexy, boring even. But unworthy of consideration in an election? That would be a mistake.

Evidence-based research is essential to understanding our urgent issues: without knowing our immigration and refugee history, how will we do the right thing? Without political economists analyzing different carbon pricing programs, how can we judge short and long-term consequences of our decisions? Without social scientists comparing child care programs across the world and within Canada, how will we know which to choose?  

Research is background music in elections: it shapes the polling, strategizing, fact checking and pundit pronouncing that we watch on television. But it should be far more: knowledge production in the humanities and social sciences shapes how we understand our history, global transformations and the political choices available to us. Ensuring quality, evidence-based research, sharing it as widely as possible, and fostering the next generation of researchers are all smart investments in Canada. Here are four examples that remind us that electoral choices are shaped by knowledge production.

How many times during the election have reporters quoted the phrase “None is too Many”? Taken from the title of Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s history of the response of the Canadian state to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe before World War II, it has become a symbol for misguided refugee policy, shaped by ethnic prejudice, political maneuvering and a failure of leadership. Published over 30 years ago, None Is Too Many is more than a catchphrase reminder of our less-than-stellar humanitarian past. It is defining, document-grounded research that has become integral to an understanding of our history and current policy choices.

Reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples, addressing land claims and tackling massive social and educational deficits in Aboriginal communities have garnered passing election mention. More would be welcome. Whether we discuss treaties, residential schooling or clean water, research matters a great deal to court decisions, policy directions and to how we see ourselves as a nation. Historical research has stretched from disturbing revelations about health experiments in residential schools to the collection and sharing of survivors’ stories. Whether we use this knowledge to create a better future remains a political decision, but our choices must be based on accurate, extensive and collaborative understanding.

Research findings about economic and social policy are debated, as they should be. The more accurate, high-quality research we have, the more international our scope, the more informed our choices will be. Research has shown how high-quality childcare—or lack thereof—directly affects gender equality, labour force participation, family and childhood health. History teaches us that tax policy rarely creates childcare spaces, and universal access to childcare endows it with the aura of social investment rather than stigmatization.

Mention of the census may bring yawns to some. Who could imagine that a statistical study instituted in the 19th century would elicit so much debate? But with good reason: the long-form census helped us understand economic trends, face challenging social issues and plan our communities’ future. Abandoning the long-form census—against the advice of researchers—has turned out to be a disaster for our state of understanding of Canada.

The list could go on: everything from environmental protection to international relations needs evidence-based, extensive research. Whatever the outcome on Election Day, the next government should take note: ensuring the highest standards of knowledge production, and creating a new generation of researchers are not peripheral issues. These are essential investments in our future.

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Federal policy