Chief Science Advisor: A step towards ensuring a voice for science

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By Stephanne Taylor

On Monday, Dec. 5, the Minister of Science, the Honorable Kirsty Duncan announced the search for the Chief Science Advisor (CSA) for Canada.  The announcement has been a long time coming — Prime Minister Trudeau promised to create a Chief Science Officer post as part of the Liberal platform for the 2015 election. Since the Liberals took office, the Minister of Science has conducted extensive research for the position, comparing similar posts in governments around the world as well as consulting extensively with Canadian scientists and organizations.

The CSA will report directly to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science. Cabinet will be able to ask the CSA to investigate an issue or topic, and will have access to the CSA’s reports and advice.  (Opposition and back-bench MPs will not be able to consult directly with the CSA.)  The mandate, as laid out by Minister Duncan in her announcement speech, is two-fold: “The CSA will work to raise scientific awareness among Canadians. They will also provide impartial scientific advice to the Prime Minister, to the Minister of Science, [and] to the Cabinet, when requested.”

The word “impartial” in that quote is important, as it is likely that scientific evidence will sometimes contradict the government’s proposed policy. For the CSA to successfully ensure that scientific evidence is consulted and accepted as part of the government decision-making process, the office must be free to submit controversial evidence without suffering political repercussions.

 

“This position is critical because science affects everything from the health and well-being of Canadians to the economy and the environment. Science is also the foundation of sound decision making within government.” — Hon. Kirsty Duncan

 

The position of Chief Science Advisor will be held by an experienced and prominent member of the Canadian scientific community, and the job requirements show that the government is looking for someone with considerable experience in all aspects of peer-review. They are looking for a scientist who has experience with hands-on research and with evaluating the research of others. Whoever is chosen for the position will likely be well-versed in the major issues facing Canadian scientists.  

The position will be supported by an office, since no one person can be an expert in every field of science. Ideally, the supporting positions will also be held by scientists with solid research backgrounds so the advice provided by the office will be well-considered by a range of scientists across multiple disciplines. Once the position is filled, the Minister of Science will seek to solidify the office through legislation to ensure that the position is a permanent fixture that cannot be easily dismantled by future governments.

Creating the CSA position is a strong first step towards ensuring that a voice for science is present at the highest levels of government and that science is integrated into the decision making process. The effectiveness of the office lies largely with how receptive the Prime Minister and Cabinet are to receiving information that may run counter to the government’s proposed policy. This is one weakness of a position that reports to the Prime Minister and not directly to Parliament. However, after the Harper years, this is a tangible step towards improving the scientific rigour of federal policy and enshrining a seat for science at the advisory table.

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