GovernmentLeadershipPublic Sector
April 13, 2016

A Chief Science Officer for Canada? Looking for Models

Canada’s previous attempts at any sustainable structure for science advice have all failed.

Following the various mandate letters from the Trudeau Administration, the Minister for Science has been asked by the prime minister to establish a Chief Science Officer (CSO) position to guide and inform government decision-making. The Minister, Kirsty Duncan, has launched a consultation exercise and is asking for input on what the role and responsibilities of this CSO will be; what priorities should be tackled; and how these will be communicated to the research community and wider publics.

It’s an ambitious charge for anyone—and has raised expectations that are unlikely to be met. Canada’s previous attempts at any sustainable structure for science advice have all failed. The most recent experiment, the National Science Advisor (NSA) to the Prime Minister (2003-2008), cratered for several reasons. The role and mandate of the NSA were not sufficiently well defined. Its relationships with the Minister of Industry, Cabinet, the PMO, Parliament and the other advisory functions within the federal system where particularly vague.

In her discussions, the new science Minister is also tapping into experience and experiments abroad, particularly within Commonwealth countries where Parliamentary systems resemble those of Canada. The UK, Australia and New Zealand are countries of choice given their experience in tapping advice and knowledge for more effective decision-making.

Canada has also looked south of the border for inspiration—the new Minister has already consulted with the Assistant to the President for Science & Technology and the Director of the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) in the White House. The mission of the Office of Science and Technology Policy is threefold: first, to provide the President and senior staff with accurate, relevant, and timely scientific and technical advice on all matters of consequence; second, to ensure that the policies of the Executive Branch are informed by sound science; and third, to ensure that the scientific and technical work of the Executive Branch is properly coordinated so as to provide the greatest benefit to society.

But the US has a highly pluralistic system for science advice—one that is well established with a culture that values the application of this advice to decision-making; something Canada is sorely lacking. The advisory landscape is populated with such organizations as the American Association for the Advancement of Science  and the National Academies of Science, not to mention numerous advocacy groups. As a result, there is almost no shortage of advisory capability. Rather, the issue is one of wading through the various sources of knowledge and applying a critical eye on the reliable data and information. That said, the advisory ecosystem is an open one—much of the advice is available to the public for further input and consultation.

Of all of the various national science advice experiments, the UK model is the one that Canada pays the most attention to because the UK is constantly tinkering with the advisory structures. The BSE (Mad Cow) and foot and mouth outbreaks gave considerable impetus to the current structure that is now in play within the UK.

The UK has a long-established chief science advisor apparatus. It adopted guidelines on scientific analysis in policy making in 1997 and continuously refined them. (Canada adapted much of the structure for its Council of Science and Technology Advisors. Created in 1996, it was meant to examine scientific controversies requiring more effective use of reliable knowledge. It was closed down by the Harper government in 2006.)

The current UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser and the Government Office for Science work closely with Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers to deliver the science advice, evidence and implementation that the UK government needs to govern the country. It does this mainly by working as a “transmission mechanism” between expert scientific communities working in academia, industry and government, and government policy makers.

The UK Parliament also benefits from its own advisory-analytical support platform. The UK Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) provides advice on research evidence relating to public policy issues. For example, POST advisers provide oral briefings to select committees on research evidence relevant to inquiries, or assessments of evidence received by a committee; and ad hoc peer reviewed briefings prepared at the request of a select committee or library research service. POST covers a wide range of areas including health, biological sciences, physical sciences, engineering, ICT, energy, environment and the social sciences. It holds briefings, convenes workshops and publishes regular POSTnotes to assist parliamentarians in grappling with key public policy issues. The federal NDP Party has introduced several motions in the Canadian Parliament to consider this type of information service for the Canadian Parliamentarians—it awaits a sustained demand from elected MPs.

It would be a mistake to assume that the UK’s sophisticated science advisory system will automatically deliver a well-functioning knowledge-based society. By most measures, the UK has been dropping in its overall spending and performance for R&D and innovation and is now on par with Canada. There are other concerns about the UK advisory system. First, it is complex and difficult to manage. In addition, with the exception of the Chief Scientific Adviser, most of the departmental advisors are part-time, limiting their ability to be effectively embedded within the policy apparatus.In slight contrast to the UK model, the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (PMCSA) is an independent individual who reports directly to the PM. This mechanism allows the role to be filled by the secondment of a practicing academic. The PMCSA has a separate Office, which is physically within the appointee’s home institution, but has direct liaison into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The PMCSA, established in 2009, has the following responsibilities:•To enhance the use of science in policy making;
To promote public understanding of science;

  • To promote STEM education;
  • To promote NZ’s interests through science diplomacy;
  • To provide scientific advice to the PM
  • To act as sounding board on policy for science;
  • To commission deliberative advice on selected topics,
  • To serve on specific governmental boards;
  • To chair the network of Science Advisors

Much like the UK model, NZ Departmental Science Advisors have been appointed in major ministries and report to their Chief Executive with an indirect reporting structure to the PMCSA.

The current New Zealand Chief Scientist is Sir Peter David Gluckman, a paediatrician who does not shy from presenting the pluses and minuses of the role of a chief scientist wherever he goes. He is also careful to argue that science advice comes with baggage and its own value-laden predilections. He believes strongly in the honest-broker role of a science adviser and has launched an international network of science advisers designed to collect good practices in this area.

His May 2015 speech on the need to pay attention to traditional Western science and indigenous knowledge is worthy of careful perusal in the Canadian context. “Science, over the centuries has been refined to recognize and mitigate the influence of values in producing knowledge,” he said. “Other ways of knowing may position values and tradition at their very heart. Our challenge is to come to a meeting place on the reliability and acceptability of variously derived knowledge and what elements from each knowledge pathway will inform the whole and create a better society.” He has recently launched the third in a series of extensive consultations for further recommendations to the Prime Minister on the principles and practices for the production and treatment of science-based evidence for public policy decision-making and on the interface with academia.

The position of Chief Scientist for Australia was created by the Labour Government in 1989. Dr. Alan Finkel, an engineer, is Australia’s current Chief Scientist (the eight). His task is to provide high-level independent advice to the Prime Minister and other Ministers on matters relating to science, technology and innovation. The CS also holds the position of Executive Officer of the Commonwealth Science Council to identify challenges and opportunities for Australia that can be addressed, in part, through science. The Chief Scientist reports to the Minister for Industry and Science, and also works closely with the Prime Minister both in his role as Executive Officer of the Commonwealth Science Council and in order to provide detailed scientific advice. The Chief Scientist also holds a number of ex-officio roles at the discretion of the government including Chair of Australian Climate Change Science Framework Coordination Group, and membership of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) Advisory Board.

The incumbent is also an advocate for Australian science internationally and focuses national thinking on science across the states and territories through the Forum of Australian Chief Scientists. An equally important part of the role of Chief Scientist for Australia is to be a champion of science, research and the role of evidence in the community and in government. Finally, the Chief Scientist is a communicator of science to the general public, with the aim to promote understanding of, contribution to and enjoyment of science and evidence-based thinking. The new Chief Scientist is currently tackling two key areas: to help lead the development of a 15-year plan for investment in science, research and innovation and to map Australia’s long-term research infrastructure needs.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that science advice has come into its own around the globe. A new International Network for Government Science Advice has been established. INGSA provides a forum for policy makers, practitioners, academies, and academics to share experience, build capacity and develop theoretical and practical approaches to the use of scientific evidence in informing policy at all levels of government. Quebec’s Chief Scientist—the only Canadian jurisdiction to have such a position—is a member and serves on the network development group to this newly formed group.

In due course, Canada will have a federal Chief Science Advisor of sorts. That position will be yet another attempt by a Canadian government to arm itself with expertise to tap on emerging public policy issues that have a significant science (including social sciences) input—presumably there will be a demand for this advice. It is always useful in this context to explore other models and try to learn from our past failures. Of course, adapting models from other places should be done with great care given Canada’s history, culture, Nordic and bilingual confederation.

Nonetheless, as Sir Peter Gluckman noted in his remarks at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting on February 14, “The key issue for science and scientific advice is that of maintaining trust with the policy makers, rather than being seen as a well-placed lobby for science. This is generally done through maintaining the integrity of both the form and the function of advice.”

This is sage advice. Canada’s new Science Officer should be exclusively an advisory role—an adviser that is “on tap” and not “on top.” This key criterion has already proven to be a successful mandate.

 

Paul Dufour is a Fellow and Adjunct Professor of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa.

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