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The Black Hole

The Council of Canadian Academies – Thriving, Surviving, or Doomed to Fail?

BY DAVID KENT | APR 25 2010

Quick hit:
1. The Stem Cell Foundation has been nominated for a Webby – the Oscars of the Internet – in the category of Best Activism Website. It’s quite impressive that they were nominated as these are a big deal, and what’s even more impressive is that when I cast my vote, they had a slim lead! It’s not often that support for medical research will hit the radar of activists so if, like me, you think they did an excellent job of communicating a positive and inspiring message about scientific research, vote in order to help them win the People’s Voice Award. Also, don’t forget to consider signing the stem cell charter if you haven’t already.

The Council of Canadian Academies – Thriving, Surviving, or Doomed to Fail?
Created in 2005, the Council of Canadian Academies is a not-for-profit corporation that supports science-based, expert assessments to inform public policy development in Canada. It was created with $30 million seed funding from Government which expires in 2015 and just underwent its midterm assessment last week. The report was generally positive and indeed to the casual reader it would appear the CCA has a lot to be proud of and not much to worry about. Digging a little deeper though, one gets the feeling that the CCA is facing a critical juncture in its existence and faces the very real possibility of becoming a heck of a lot less effective in 2015.

The panel, James Wilsdon (Britain’s Royal Society), E. William Colglazier (US National Academy of Sciences), Luc Vinet (Rector, of U de Montreal), and Margaret Bloodworth (former Canadian senior public servant) highlighted the council as a unique body within Canada with much opportunity to grow, was strong and credible in its membership, and covered a wide variety of topics. This is all too common in Canada – we build it, prove its quality, and then funding dries up because it’s not new and exciting anymore. Genome Canada barely escaped this fate after becoming one of the most effective networks of scientists in Canada with renewed funding in 2010 after being left out in 2009. The CCA will probably not be so lucky. Am I premature in assuming that the Canadian Government will not renew funding for the CCA? Perhaps, but I think the writing is on the wall with the way the organization has been treated in its first five years. Instead of being closely linked to the National Science Adviser and the Prime Minister’s Office as it was in 2005, the CCA was pushed into the Ministry of Industry and is now filtered through the Science, Technology and Innovation Council. I’ve ranted about this earlier but the important point for the CCA and Canadians who want to see it continue is that no matter how good a report is (which in the CCAs case is “very”) it is rendered completely useless if not actually read by policy makers, industry and community stakeholders.

The Council has had some major impacts on the Government sponsors that have requested reports. The mid-term assessment highlights the fact that 6 of the Council’s first 8 reports have had substantive impact on the sponsor’s thinking. A clear-cut example is when Natural Resources Canada asked for a feasibility report on gas hydrates as part of the long-term fuel supply and based on the CCA report, now funds two major gas hydrate programs. The CCA can also adapt reasonably quickly to short term policy demands as evidenced by the report that was generated for Indian and Northern Affairs to assess the scientific priorities of their May 2008 Visioning Workshop. This report was completed more quickly, involved fewer meetings, and demonstrated that the CCA could perform multiple functions depending on the depth of information required.

However, as the panel also pointed out, the CCA lacks visibility beyond their sponsors and has an almost exclusive dependence on Government sponsors. And these are the crucial issues that need resolution in order for Canada to retain an independent body of experts to provide advice on science policy.

In Britain and America, such bodies are much more established and much better funded (often through private philanthropy) and play a major role in policy making. The scientific community, and the members of the public who believe in evidence based policy making, needs to help ensure that the CCA is not disbanded in 2015 and we have a reasonable amount of time to get this momentum created.

So, I encourage you to read the reports, see the type of information that is being created, and then spread the word to your friends, family and colleagues to help build a support structure that will preserve this institution. And let’s not wait until 2015 to read the article about the removal of funding for the CCA – please Canada, don’t let another good institution fall by the wayside.

Reports from the Council of Canadian Academies
•Better Research for Better Business
The Sustainable Management of Groundwater in Canada
•Innovation and Business Strategy: Why Canada Falls Short
•Vision for the Canadian Arctic Research Initiative: Assessing the Opportunities
•Energy from Gas Hydrates: Assessing the Opportunities and Challenges for Canada
•Small is Different: A Science Perspective on the Regulatory Challenges of the Nanoscale
•Influenza Transmission and the Role of Personal Protective Respiratory Equipment: An Assessment of the Evidence
•The State of Science and Technology in Canada
Assessments underway:
Approaches to Animal Health Risk Assessment
Integrated Testing of Pesticides
Research Integrity in the Canadian Context
State and Trends of Biodiversity Science in Canada

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. […] you to the folks at The Black Hole blog for their very incisive post about the recent (released April 28, 2010) mid-term assessment […]

  2. Marlyn Cammon / December 8, 2010 at 16:38

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading.