Making Room for a Little Science – Canadian Government Executive

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Editor's Word
July 26, 2016

Making Room for a Little Science

Other countries have taken on the job of educating their elected representatives. We need to act on this also. It can only make for better policy and better legislation.

This Editor’s Note is taken from the April issue of Canadian Government Executive.

I write this on the morrow of the federal budget, when the goodies falling out of the government’s piñata are being collected. The Trudeau government has clearly chosen to reengage the federal state on a number of issues. There are many exciting new directions and commitments that are worth considering.

Inspired by Paul Dufour’s thoughtful piece on the search for a science policy advisor in this month’s issue, I paid particular attention at what the Liberals are thinking on this file.

I never thought “Science Policy” had much resonance outside a few buildings in Ottawa and in some of the halls of academia, yet for the late Conservative government, it turned out to be lightning rod. It was not just a matter of programs. I was amazed by countless conversations with friends and acquaintances who had never paid attention to “science” before but who were now adamantly criticizing the government’s attitude towards the collection of empirical evidence. The backlash over the census was the most evident manifestation of that. The reaction spread, however, as more people started to track what could be considered the government anti-intellectual bias. Some called it a Conservative “war on science” that affected the government’s policy on environmental protection, a host of regulatory matters, and education policy.

The new budget promises an immediate $73 million increase for Canada’s research grant councils—a substantial climb after years of neglect. The new “Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment fund” will eventually pour $500M/year (starting in 2017-18) to help universities and colleges modernize their laboratory facilities and to “expand on-campus incubators that support start-ups as they grow their businesses.” No word on the long-form census, but the government is clearly not afraid of supporting science and is showing an openness to what it can bring to an economy that has to be focused on preparing the future.

So, this is a bit of welcomed fresh air. The policy will have coherence and conviction, however, only when it comes informed with the help of a scientific advisor. The national government under Prime Minister Paul Martin had actually created this position, and it was occupied by Dr. Arthur Carty, a chemist, from 2004 to 2008. The Harper government had no time for him and his issues, and the office was closed. The new administration is committed to reviving this office, and Paul Dufour’s article in this issue scrutinizes the horizon on what could be adopted.

Making sure a very busy prime minister is properly advised on science is a good thing, but it is not a solution in itself. As Dufour points out, parliament needs education just as much. Of the 338 members in the House of Commons, only two individuals list themselves as scientists (both from Manitoba). Four members are physicians; three from Ontario and one from Manitoba (again!). Fourteen members are listed as engineers: Twelve of them are Liberals; two are Conservatives; five are from Quebec, seven from Ontario and one each hails from Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia. In all of the above categories, none are New Democrats (what is going on here?).

Put them all together, throw in a handful of people who list themselves as “environmentalists” (hello, New Democrats) and you have maybe twenty-five members in the new Parliament that have more than a passing acquaintance with science. That is less than eight percent of the House of Commons. This is the institution that will prepare the country for a “scientific future”?

Other countries have taken on the job of educating their elected representatives. We need to act on this also. It can only make for better policy and better legislation.

The Liberal government is also committed to reengaging with the public service. This is as important at a general level, but the issue can be reduced to a personal level. What is a government executive to do in order to reengage what once was a high-performing employee who has lost the verve for service? I asked Dr. Craig Dowden, a specialist in Human Resource Management and Leadership, to consider this problem. His thoughtful piece in this issue you will find enlightening. It’s all about reengagement.

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About this author

Patrice Dutil

Patrice Dutil

Patrice Dutil is the Editor of Canadian Government Executive. He is a Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University in Toronto. He has worked as a government policy advisor, a non-profit organization executive, a television producer and was the founder, and editor for five years, of The Literary Review of Canada. His upcoming publications include a book on the administrative practices of Canadian prime ministers Macdonald, Laurier and Borden, and a study of the 1917 election in Canada.

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