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Policy & Practice

Do we need chief science advisers in Canada?

There are fundamental questions that we should be considering about the role and format of science advice in this country.

par CRESO SÁ | 12 OCT 18

In the past few years, we have witnessed what might otherwise have been very minor bureaucratic decisions by federal and provincial governments be elevated into newspaper headlines.

The fault lines of this debate have taken shape at the federal level. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper lost power under a cloud of “muzzling scientists” who worked in the federal government and a general disregard for science advice, which was relegated to an uncertain status under the industry ministry. The Trudeau Liberals campaigned on and embraced a pro-science stance since day one in office, promising to revert the muzzling of government scientists (still a work in progress), appointing a PhD scientist, Kirsty Duncan, as science minister, and launching the fundamental science review.

This narrative of the two parties has remained largely intact – the Conservatives more or less ignore science unless they are talking about helping industry and creating jobs, and the Liberals continue to rejoice in their role as defenders of science and promoters of evidence-based policy.

This context gave rise to the fanfare around the appointment of Mona Nemer as Chief Science Advisor a little over a year ago. Hailed by pro-science groups as a step in the right direction after the Harper conservatives had eliminated the role, Dr. Nemer’s role has been framed expansively as encompassing advisory, coordinating, and ambassadorial roles. Former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne followed the footsteps of Prime Minister Trudeau by appointing Molly Shoichet as Ontario’s first chief scientist during the last year of her government, with a similarly broad mandate. In both instances, academic associations and scientific organizations were effusively congratulatory, taking the appointment as indication of a greater role for scientific evidence in policy making, and welcoming the promise of greater visibility for science at the federal level.

In a countervailing move that should have surprised no one, Ontario Premier Doug Ford quickly dismissed Dr. Soichet upon taking office in late June. This was described as a conventional housecleaning move; however, it would be naive to ignore how this speaks to the politics of science being played out nationally. Response to this dismissal can be divided into two camps: those who don’t care (the silent majority) and those who protested it, including vocal scientists and the group Evidence for Democracy, which launched a campaign to advocate for the hiring of a replacement.

What is not being talked about are fundamental questions that we should be considering about the role and format of science advice in this country. Should we really treat the resurrection of chief science advisers as an inherent good, in the absence of systematic evidence that the incumbents are actually able to deliver on the bold and lofty goals that they are tasked with? The national discourse supporting the value of the chief scientist adviser model is embarrassingly self-referential, drawing uncritically on contributions from post-holders (e.g. here and here) who attend science policy conferences invariably defending their own achievements.

Can and should one person be designated as the main voice of “science” in government today? What other models of expert consultation should be considered? What mechanisms should be in place to review the provision of scientific advice in certain areas of government decision making where technical knowledge is deemed critical? None of these questions is being seriously raised in an open and inclusive debate today, although we do not exactly face a shortage of platforms for science policy discussions in this country.

Instead, those who have readily applauded the Liberals and booed the Ontario Conservatives are playing into the symbolic politics of their decisions. If we want more reliable, research-based knowledge to be considered in policy-making, we need more than a cheerful “team science” crowd genuflecting to any gesture, as well-intentioned as it might be, to elevate the status of science in government. An evidence-based stance to scrutinize claims and promises is as needed in these cases as in the ostensibly anti-science agendas of right-leaning parties.

Creso Sá
Creso Sá is the vice-dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is also the editor of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.
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  1. Jim Woodgett / 12 octobre 2018 à 17:39

    Hi Creso,

    While it’s good to ask the question, I think the idea that the Chief Science Advisor type position is a singular/main voice for science is fundamentally wrong. Ultimately, there needs to be a mechanism for facile reference of politicians to access scientific information. They are not going to seek out scientists themselves – indeed, there’s little evidence any government has exploited the Royal Society of Canada, for example, for advice on science. Instead, the role of the CSA is to provide conduits and linkages to relevant experts, as well as contextualizing the questions in ways that are likely more useful. In addition, there is clearly an educational role that is regularized by the existence of the position on the Hill.

    The creation of the role also sends a political message, as you point out, and that is a concern – as we saw in Ontario where the quality and effectiveness of the Advisor was not questioned, the position was simply deemed not useful (though the Ford government has not indicated that there will not be an appointment in the future).

    Surely, it is possible and desirable to view such a role in a non-political manner? This would be helped if the role was non-partisan and the office of the CSA equally available to all MPs (it’s not clear to me that is the case).

    It is also of note that the quality of Canadian CSAs (Drs. Nemer, Shoichet and Quirion) has been outstanding – as researchers and communicators. Whether less qualified/capable individuals would be so readily defended is unclear.

    Lastly, the Naylor panel reported on the lack of coordination between our main federal funding agencies and their recommendation for creation of a coordinating committee (CRCC) has been accepted and the body created. The degree that the CSA is able to meld our scientific bodies and agencies into a more coherent, integrated effort will be a measure of the value-add of the position. I am sure the CSA will publish regular updates on her activities and progress. This lady is not for turning.