While every federal election campaign is unique, one of the things you can always count on is voters ranking health care at the top of their priority list. The 2019 election campaign will be no different. However, while health care is perpetually ranked as a top voter concern, health research is only rarely identified as a political priority during a federal election campaign. Yet in the 2015 election, science and research was the topic of much debate and multiple political commitments were made, which led to further significant victories for the health research and innovation community.
There are two important lessons we can learn from the 2015 election, and the successes achieved in the following years. First, research is most politically relevant when intersecting with the most pressing challenges facing our country, and secondly, there is considerable power when speaking with a common voice.
In the 2015 election campaign, the Liberals believed there was a strategic advantage in drawing attention to the Conservative government’s perceived poor record on science and research and distinguished themselves with commitments for greater scientific independence and funding. But the Liberals also knew that Canadians were increasingly anxious about the serious challenges facing the country – even four years ago the environment ranked second only to the economy and ahead of health care – and believed that a commitment to “evidence-based” decision making would reassure people that a Liberal government could better meet those challenges.
Fast forward to 2019, and pollsters tell us that voters continue to be quite anxious, about the economy, their financial security, climate change, the healthcare system, and other issues ranging from housing to immigration to food security. And while politicians will try to assuage that anxiety with various policy measures, voters will also expect an honest admission that some of the most pressing challenges of our time can only be solved with better knowledge and solutions. From climate change, to global health threats, to famines and crop failure, Canadians are looking to politicians to meaningfully address these complex issues and offer more than just simplistic policy bandaids.
In this context there is great opportunity for the research community to connect the dots for voters and politicians alike. As often as we can, the research community must reiterate the integral role that science and research plays in tackling today’s global challenges and call on political parties to make meaningful commitments to advancing our understanding of how to meet these challenges. Science and research can be a timely and appealing political commitment when the explicit link to voters’ top concerns is made, so we must make this link as clearly and as often as possible.
The second lesson that must be top of mind for the research community as we head into the 2019 election campaign is the power of solidarity and speaking with one voice. After the publication of the “Naylor report” in 2017, the science and research community mobilized its support at an unprecedented scale. A grass-roots campaign to lobby the government to adopt the report’s recommendations coalesced under the hashtag #SupportTheReport, and an intense campaign of letter-writing and political outreach was undertaken. While lobbying on behalf of science and research was not new, the degree of unanimity and discipline of message arguably was.
The community was united in its focus and its appeal to government, and success soon followed. In the 2018 federal budget, the government pledged almost $4 billion in new money for science over five years, including big increases to the three main granting agencies: the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. $763 million was committed to the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the Canada Research Chairs programme, which supports scientists’ salaries at universities across the country, received $210 million, earmarked for early-career researchers.
The 2018 budget achievement for science and research was not a surprise to any student of government relations. “Strength in numbers” is an oft used phrase in political strategy, but in this instance, it was the message discipline that distinguished the community’s advocacy efforts. The community was united in its objective, and spoke with one voice in the service of that objective. For any community, that can be a difficult goal to achieve but the 2018 budget success underlines the effectiveness of the approach. In the 2019 election campaign, if the research community can put voice to that type of unanimity again, there is every reason to believe that success will be theirs.
Michelle McLean is Senior Vice-President, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Canada’s leading strategic communications agency. She can be reached at email@example.com