Election 2015: Reason for Optimism for the Health Research Community?

Canadians woke up Tuesday morning to a new reality – a majority Liberal Government. History has been made with the Liberals jumping from a distant third at the start of the campaign to now lead the country with an indisputably strong majority. We saw momentum for the Liberal Party build in the last ten days of the campaign, which broke the 11-week, three-way race, that many believed could see the Conservatives returned with a minority.

The 78-day campaign covered a lot of ground, as parties criss-crossed the country, but also from a policy perspective. Unfortunately, health research, despite representing a major investment in health by the federal government, received only scant mention. While that may be disappointing to many, I would argue that there are two important reasons for the health research community to be encouraged by this campaign, and the election outcome.

The Surprising 2015 Ballot Box Question

Before the campaign began, many predicted that the economy would be the ballot box question on October 19th, meaning that this election would come down to a choice for voters between competing economic plans. In the end, most people were surprised that the ballot box question was something very different, and what ultimately dominated the campaign is something that should leave the research community feeling encouraged.

Despite the numerous policy commitments of the parties, this campaign became more about values than it was a referendum on the economy. Whether it was the niqab issue, the Syrian refugee crisis, or the barbaric practices hotline, the real debate became about values the parties represented and what kind of country we want to have and build. In fact, an Abacus poll found more voters thought Monday’s election was about change and values than it was about the economy.

So why is a campaign about values reason for the health research community to be encouraged?

In this election campaign, Canadians showed that they respond positively to a discussion on values and the country we should aspire to be. In fact, many people are attributing the higher voter turnout (68.5% in 2015 vs. 61.1% in 2011) to the focus on values and aspirational change. This should be encouraging to researchers who know that the arguments that support increased investment in health research must extend beyond the economic return on investment, and connect more broadly to the values of Canadians and our national aspiration for a healthy population today and in the future.

Researchers who can engage Canadians and explain why they are doing this work, what it will contribute to Canadians and people around the world, and connect it to our values as Canadians will find a receptive audience. In a political climate where public opinion is so important to decision-making, engaging Canadians to build support for the health research agenda is as important as influencing government directly.  Election 2015 suggests to us all that connecting the work of health researchers to the values of Canadians is one way to advance Canadians’ – and governments’ – understanding of the value proposition of health research.

A new government – A change in approach

The other reason for health researchers to feel optimistic is that the new government will have a different style than the last administration. Based on the tone and pledges made during the campaign, it is reasonable to expect a more consultative government, one that is open to discussion with stakeholders and consultation with provinces and experts.

If the campaign has shown us anything, Prime Minister-designate Trudeau intends to run an open government and depend on his team – both staff and fellow MPs – and external stakeholders as he develops his political and policy agenda. With 215 new Members of Parliament heading to Ottawa, there is great opportunity for the research community to influence the thinking of many of these MP’s, and there are bound to be several strong research supporters among them – including people like Frank Bayliss and Bardish Chagger.

A member of the Research Canada community, Mr. Bayliss is the President of Bayliss Medical, a world leader in the design, manufacturing and sale of high technology products with applications in cardiology, oncology and the vascular system.

Ms. Chagger, in response to the Research Canada’s Candidate survey, said

“Liberals believe that the federal government must continue funding basic research that the private sector – focused more on profitability and returns – will not undertake adequately. History shows that such public investment leads to tremendous economic benefits over the longer-term, as key discoveries are later adapted for commercial use.”

These are but two examples of the new class of MP’s that are heading to Ottawa and suggests that the research community should be planning to engage the government early and often as it develops its approach to the health research file. During the campaign, the Liberal Party sent some important signals to the research community, including their general support for science and research (including the pledge to appoint a Chief Science Officer) and the more specific commitment to invest $200 million per year, over the next three years, in a new innovation agenda. This promise committed the Liberal government to direct support to incubators and accelerators, research facilities, financing, and other support for successful small companies wanting to grow and export.

As is often the case, the campaign has come to an end, but the work to influence the next government has just begun. There is a real opportunity for the health research community to influence the policy direction of the government, through direct engagement of both public and political audiences. Let’s seize the opportunity, on behalf of – and for – all Canadians!