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Science journal attacks Harper's ban on long census Add to ...

Canada is facing international criticism in the prestigious science journal Nature over the Harper government's decision to stop requiring that Canadians fill out a lengthy census questionnaire.

Two U.S.-based statistics experts describe Canada's move as part of a global attack on census taking that is jeopardizing a vital tool for taking the pulse of nations.

"Census taking around the world is under assault, thanks to concerns about privacy, cost and response rates," Stephen Fienberg and Kenneth Prewitt write in the August 26 issue of Nature.

"Most scientists and policy makers worldwide fail to appreciate what is at stake until it is too late to repair the damage of short-sighted decisions," they say.

Prof. Prewitt, with Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, is a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau. Prof. Fienberg, a leading statistician, teaches at Carnegie Mellon University.

The pair warn of the perils of Canada's controversial move to scrap the mandatory long-form census, which was previously sent to 20 per cent of households.

"This decision will lower the quality and raise the cost of information on nearly every issue before Canada's government," the opinion piece in Nature says.

Canada's compulsory long-form census is being replaced with an optional survey mailed to one-third of households - a voluntary approach expected to generate a far lower response rate and improperly measure minority groups. The survey's 50-plus list of questions quiz Canadians on everything from their home and work life to their ethnicity and religion.

While Canada will still require citizens to fill out a short-form census that asks a few basic questions, other countries are abandoning theirs entirely.

Britain plans to drop its 200-year-old census after 2011, saying it's an expensive and inaccurate way of taking a demographic snapshot. London is examining other methods of gathering information.

Profs. Fienberg and Prewitt say the forgone census data is hard to replace and its loss will impoverish the ability of a country to plan policies or services.

"Government statistics are no less vital to a nation's scientific infrastructure than is an observatory or a particle accelerator, and need stable funding and protection," they write.

"Detailed, reliable demographic data are used in a vast array of policy decisions and research studies, from determining how many hospitals are needed to tracking whether the ongoing poverty of a group can be linked to health or education," the pair say.

Industry Minister Tony Clement has defended the decision to shift to a voluntary long-form survey, saying it's vital to protect privacy, and assured critics that Ottawa will get plenty of responses.

But the Nature authors warn that citizens are fatigued by requests to voluntarily disclose information.

"Telemarketing has soured the environment for phone interviews and junk mail clutters e-mail inboxes. Who has time to distinguish legitimate surveys from the flood of look-alikes?"

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