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Globe editorial

Canada goes off the statistical standard Add to ...

The mandatory long-form census is the "gold standard" in government information collection, say two scientists in an opinion piece published this week in Nature, an influential British scientific journal. It follows that Canada, which is replacing the mandatory part of the census with a voluntary one, is choosing some lesser standard. Doesn't Canada need the gold standard? Shouldn't it want it?

Apparently not. The country that set out to Own the Podium at the Vancouver Olympics (and succeeded in winning the most golds) is content to have inferior data collection. The Conservative government has announced that the mandatory long-form sent to 20 per cent of Canadians and with detailed questions about work, home life, religion and ethnicity is being replaced for the 2011 census with a voluntary questionnaire sent to 30 per cent. It's as if the country suddenly lost its ambition and aimed for a "personal best."

No one thinks the substitute is the gold standard. The head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, resigned to correct a misimpression fostered by Industry Minister Tony Clement that he believed it was. Wayne Smith, now the acting chief statistician, calls the voluntary survey "usable and useful," but says it "will, of course, never be comparable to census data." [Emphasis added]/p>

Why should Canadians accept less than the gold standard? The Canadian government says the mandatory questionnaire intrudes on privacy and is coercive. But these concerns are far outweighed by what is being lost.

"This decision will lower the quality and raise the cost of information on nearly every issue before Canada's government," write Stephen Fienberg of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Kenneth Prewitt, former director of the United States Census Bureau, in Nature. "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." For instance, the demographic data from the mandatory questionnaire help determine everything from "how many hospitals are needed to tracking whether the ongoing poverty of a group can be linked to health or education."

The authors say critics of the traditional mail-in census like to point to Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark, which have scrapped their censuses. But the administrative records that replaced them have proved to be "incomplete, inaccurate and out of date." Britain is giving itself 10 years to find a system to replace the census.

If it mattered in luge, moguls and hockey, it should matter in government data collection. Canadians should aspire to the gold standard.

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