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Expectations run high for new government at science policy conference

Rebuilding trust and dialogue key themes at recent conference in Ottawa.

By TIM LOUGHEED | DEC 09 2015

When it comes to how the new Canadian government should approach the research community, the way forward turns out to be “the long road back.” That was how former national science advisor Arthur Carty cast the challenge at the 7th annual Canadian Science Policy Conference held in Ottawa at the end of November.

“This conference comes at a very critical but opportune time for Canadian science and technology,” said Dr. Carty. “It’s critical because over the last decade Canada, through the actions and policies of its government, has sunk to a new low. That has resulted in an erosion of trust, evidence and advice being ignored, and science generally speaking under siege.”

He added that the task of correcting this troubling state of affairs is nothing short of overwhelming. “It will require a fundamental change in attitude, philosophy and transparency within government and by the bureaucracy, as well as a commitment to a dialogue with scientists and the public on science issues.”

Dr. Carty, who is now executive director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo, spent 10 years as president of the National Research Council before serving as Canada’s first national science advisor from 2004 to 2008. His position was terminated by the former Conservative government, but opposition parties tried to restore it through private members’ bills in 2013 and 2015.

The Liberals pledged to reinstate the office of the chief science advisor during the recent election campaign, and that promise was reiterated in the ministerial mandate letter for Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan. Indeed, her first priority in the letter is to “create a Chief Science Officer mandated to ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.”

With these promises in mind, expectations for the new government are running high within the science community. At the official opening of the CSPC, conference chair and Canadian Science Policy Centre President Mehrdad Hariri compared the atmosphere to the one he found at the 2009 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science after the election of Barack Obama. “The excitement that I see within the scientific community is exceptional and I have never seen this before,” he observed.

Right after that, Arthur McDonald had his own opportunity to channel that excitement by leading off a series of presentations on how scientists should provide advice to government. Dr. McDonald, a professor emeritus at Queen’s University and former director of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, learned just weeks earlier that he had been named co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Starting with an account of more than three decades of work with the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, Dr. McDonald recalled how the size and scope of this project was new to funding agencies when it was launched in the late 1980s. He added that such major undertakings have become much more common and well supported, thanks to the subsequent establishment of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs program, and the Networks of Centres of Excellence.

However, he cautioned that it is not enough just to start these undertakings; support must extend to the often highly variable and unpredictable costs of operating and maintaining any sizeable research enterprise. “When new projects come forward, we need a mechanism for deciding between them but we also have to decide where the money is going to come from for the whole project,” he said.

He was followed by Sir Peter Gluckman, who has headed up the office of the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor since 2009. Dr. Gluckman stressed that this position cannot simply be that of a lobbyist for science and technology, which would consequently undermine the trust necessary to shape wider government policy.

“Science advice is neither science nor policy,” he argued. The science advisor, he continued, is “a new kind of person. It’s a person who has to be a credible scientist … but most of all they have to be an interpreter; they have to able to interpret the language of policy for scientists and the language of science for policy.”

That point was underscored by Rémi Quirion, chief scientist of Quebec since 2011, and Alan Bernstein, president and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. Both outlined the critical role of the personal relationships that science advisors must strike with regularly changing members of government on scientific, societal and economic issues that are likewise evolving. “You write your job description as you go along,” said Dr. Quirion.

As for precisely how to reinstate the role of science and technology in the deliberations of the federal government, Dr. Gluckman insisted that countries around the world were successfully doing so with widely varying strategies. Rather than touting any one arrangement, he placed greater importance on the common attitude that characterized each of them. “I don’t think the structure matters as much as the issue of access,” he concluded.

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