A Broad-Based Call for Evidence-Based Decision Making

CPJ interns Ashley Chapman and Nicole Armstrong at the Stand Up For Science rally on Parliament Hill.

Hundreds of people, many in white lab coats, descended on Parliament Hill Monday, and thousands more gathered across the country. Their message was simple: government policy needs to be based on evidence, not ideology. 

Policy decisions based on scientific evidence are vital to protecting Canada’s waterways, air quality, health services, and even public safety: scientists are servants to the common good.

This was the tack taken by Ottawa-based physician Dr. Kapil Khatter, who spoke specifically about publicly-funded science needing independence from industrial interests.

"It was public science that provided compelling evidence that smoking was harmful when tobacco manufacturers were claiming that cigarettes were safe,” he reminded the crowd.

If anyone thinks that the scientists are over-reacting, they need only read yesterday’s Guardian, published in the UK, where an article casually references Canada’s government as a parliament that routinely ignores its scientists.

But as one protester’s hand-scrawled sign read: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Policy decisions need a solid basis to be effective.

The sentiment is shared by more groups than scientists, as evidenced by the mild media storm brewing with the final data release from the National Household Survey (NHS) which replaces the long-form census. Social scientists, analysts, and researchers are responding with similar indignation. The raw data they rely on to pinpoint issues, track poverty trends, and identify needs-based funding priorities has been significantly compromised.

In 2010, the government scrapped the mandatory long form census that was sent out to 20% of Canadians every five years, citing privacy concerns. Canada’s privacy commissioner had only had three complaints about the document in about 15 years, but the government stated that individual MPs had received complaints. 

The result of the change was an extra $22 million spent on replacing the census with the survey, which is sent to a larger sample of Canadians, but is optional to fill out. Major changes in methodology mean that numbers can’t be compared with previous years’ figures, and a decrease in response rate makes the data unusable in more than a third of Canada’s census subdivisions.

This impacts areas like Hamilton, Ont., where information from 17 neighbourhoods—many of them low-income—is missing because of insufficient response rates. This leaves local social planners and policy makers understandably frustrated—and in the dark as to which programs are needed, which are working, and which aren’t. 

In a special to the Globe and Mail, Armine Yalnizyan (the keynote speaker at CPJ’s upcoming 50th Anniversary event in Toronto) explains that various studies found a “predictable bias” for those less likely to respond: the rich and poor, Aboriginal populations, people neither fluent in English nor French, and people with disabilities.

Yalnizyan believes—like the scientists gathered on the Hill—that compromised research and data will have substantial consequences for policy decisions.

“[It] means we can’t ask the important questions about the differences in how we fared before and after the 2008 crisis on critical issues such as housing affordability. We also don’t really know how big our problems are, and to what degree they are widespread or localized,” she writes.

“Census results also alerted us to systemic over-crowding in First Nations and Inuit housing. The NHS slapped blurry goggles on our vision. We know less than before about the living conditions of these communities now.”

It seems the researchers and analysts could have joined the white coats on the Hill in their call for evidence-based decision making. Twenty-two million dollars is too large a bill for anything else.

Ashley Chapman is CPJ’s former policy intern.

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