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Reports starting to multiply at Council of Canadian Academies

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | SEP 08 2008

What are the potential risks of nanotechnology? How can we extract gas hydrates in a socially and environmentally acceptable manner? These are two of the thorny issues ruminated upon recently by expert panels convened by the Council of Canadian Academies. The council, which began operations in the spring of 2006, appears to be picking up steam, with three reports released within the past year and several on the way (see table).

Peter Nicholson, council president, said he’s quite proud of the reports produced to date. But there are growing pains, he acknowledged. “I think we’ve got work to do in terms of building a sustainable internal organization that has the right skill set. We’re in the process of doing that.”

The council is modelled primarily on the National Research Council in the U.S., and many in Canada say an independent forum on science policy was long overdue. “This was lacking in Canada,” said Adam Holbrook, associate director of the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology at Simon Fraser University. Previous ministerial advisory committees have “literally come and gone about every three or four years,” he said, resulting in a “general whittling away of science and technology policymaking capability.”

What sets this council apart from previous advisory bodies, said Dr. Nicholson, is that it is completely independent from government. “The other advisory processes were either internal to the government or at the very least always within a government secretariat. … In no case did we have anything that was external, arms-length, expert-based and capable of dealing with any subject that cuts across any range of disciplines.”

And unlike previous advisory bodies, “we don’t make a lot of explicit policy recommendations,” he added. “We’re essentially an analytical body that tries to provide the facts.”

The main push to create a body to provide independent S&T advice began in 2000, led primarily by William Leiss, then president of the Royal Society of Canada. The Royal Society had assessed S&T issues on an ad hoc basis in the 1990s, but concluded that it couldn’t continue to do so without additional organizational support. Gilbert Normand, at the time minister of state for science, research and development, championed the idea, and in April 2002 the Canadian Academies of Science was incorporated (the name was subsequently changed to the Council of Canadian Academies). But it wasn’t until three years later, in the February 2005 federal budget, that the council finally received operating funds of $30 million over 10 years.

In return for government funding, the council is obliged to produce up to five assessments a year on behalf of federal government agencies or departments. The topics are chosen through an internal government competition, reviewed by a scientific advisory committee and then referred to the council’s board of governors for final approval.

The council is eager to conduct assessments for agencies outside the federal government, for a fee. At least two organizations expressed interest but didn’t sign on because of the conditions demanded by the council. These conditions say that the sponsor of an assessment, whether federal government or not, will not choose the experts, will not participate in the conduct of the assessment and will not review reports before their release. This ensures the complete independence of the process, said Dr. Nicholson.

All reports are made public and are available on the council’s website, www.scienceadvice.ca.

Pekka Sinervo, a professor of physics at the University of Toronto and until recently its dean of arts and science, chaired the recent council panel on nanotechnology. He said one of the council’s strengths is that it has the “intellectual weight of the academy behind it” as represented by its founding members, the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, and the Canadian Academies of Health Sciences. These bodies provide a “very deep pool of talent” for the expert panels to draw from, both nationally and internationally, he said.

Dr. Sinervo found the work of his particular expert panel both rewarding and intellectually challenging. “These are extraordinarily fascinating processes,” he said. “It was a great learning experience for everyone who participated in it.”

But the ultimate worth of the council will depend on the influence of its assessments. On that count, Dr. Nicholson said that the council’s first report, on the state of science and technology in Canada, was a success. Released in September 2006, the report “was exceptionally influential. You can see its fingerprints all over the government’s S&T strategy,” he said. Other assessments were well received by the contracting agencies, he said, but it is still too early to tell what effect they’ll have on policy formation.

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