Science policy
Canadian Science: mandate update from Minister Duncan
November 29, 2017
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Kirsty Duncan (the Canadian federal Minister of Science) gave a keynote address at the 9th annual Canadian Science Policy Conference in early November, during which she outlined the main priorities of her role and what she’s accomplished since being named two years ago. In our ongoing coverage of the keynote speeches from CSPC, this post will summarize her talk and highlight some critical questions.

Minister Duncan opened her speech by highlighting the how propitious the current moment is for Canadian science. Apparently, Canada was described at the G7 as a “beacon for science,” and the recent naming of our Chief Science Advisor created quite a bit of excitement in the international science community. Furthermore, with notable challenges to expertise and evidence (perhaps even to the notion of truth wholesale) playing themselves out worldwide, the relatively favourable view of evidence in Canada is a rare opportunity.

My own editorial note here is to warn against over-confidence. The Great White Evidential North can very easily go the way of other nations—we must remain diligent: committed to using evidence to drive effective decision-making, supporting policies that benefit society broadly, and communicating the value of science for all.

Canada’s global image as a progressive nation supportive of science is in notable contrast to our image on the world stage a decade ago. The role of the Science Minister has been mainly to contribute to this rehabilitation. While her detailed mandate letter can be found here, Minister Duncan synthesized her priorities as threefold:
• to strengthen science,
• to strengthen evidence-based decision-making, and
• to strengthen the broader “culture of curiosity.”

Along these lines, several notable changes have already been implemented since Duncan was named to her cabinet post in 2015. The long-form census was immediately reinstated, to ensure that robust data would be collected to feed analysis and support policymaking. The University and College Academic Staff Survey (UCASS) was also brought back. It will soon be extended to cover part-time faculty, though “part-time” faculty does not necessarily mean “contract” faculty, and it is the precarious nature of contract work in academia that seems to be more the problem than predictable work that is part-time.

Federal scientists, muzzled by the previous government, were told that they could speak publicly about their work. Worth noting though is that while there was a clear and explicit verbal directive, communication policies and the other formal mechanisms of muzzling have not actually been changed. And while anecdotal evidence suggests that things have improved, there is no publicly available data to assess whether changes in top-level messaging have percolated through middle management—repeat offenders for many an organizational shift.

Equity & diversity issues in the Canadian research ecosystem are also being addressed through a number of avenues. First is that Canadian universities need to formulate and launch action plans on this front by December 15, with two years to meet their targets, lest they risk having their Canada Research Chair (CRC) funding retracted. There has also been a cap imposed on the renewal of Tier-1 CRCs, to prevent researchers from simply sitting in their established position, thereby allowing a deeper pool of researchers to benefit from the program. In hand with genuine action on equity & diversity structures, increasing the flow-through of these CRCs should help. The Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC), long plagued by a terrible record in equity & diversity, will now also have much stricter requirements in those respects. All this of course relies on those action plans and strategies having some effect, though threatening funding is hopefully a sign that they will be taken more seriously than they have in the past.

And then there’s the Naylor Report, product of extensive consultations around the country about support for investigator-led science. Though it includes over 30 recommendations, one has predictably garnered the most attention within the research community as well as the most hesitancy and fudging from the political crowd: an increase of nearly half a billion dollars for fundamental science, phased in over four years. It is perhaps in response to this dollar figure that the Science Minister explained that she agrees with “the majority” of the recommendations.

To her credit, Duncan had the critical distance and level-headed honesty to point out that this funding gap was opened over the course of a decade, and that it’s unreasonable to expect that it would be filled back in by one budget, perhaps even by a single federal mandate for the Liberals. A cynical reading of course says that Duncan simply implements the things that don’t require any money, which is apparently the only thing that requires political capital to be dislodged. For what it’s worth, Duncan does not strike me as so cold or calculating.

In terms of strengthening evidence-based decision-making, Duncan proclaimed that science is at the basis of everything, consulted whenever government makes a decision, that evidence is of fundamental value to government. The big-ticket item here is that the government designed a Chief Science Advisor (CSA) position and named Dr. Mona Nemer to the role. The CSA’s role is to gather evidence and integrate it into the decision-making process via the Prime Minister, Science Minister and Cabinet. The very existence of this role suggests that Duncan’s assessment is premature: if science is already at the basis of government’s way of operating, why name a champion to overhaul the system?

Furthermore, Nemer claims that science is not only the content that informs policymaking, but rather a whole way of working. If that’s right, then Duncan’s claim that the federal government is all of a sudden totally evidence-based implies that there’s been a major overhaul in public service structure, practice and culture—in the two years since the Liberals took power. Surely such a major and rapid transformation (noting that things were apparently driven by “ideology” under Harper) would have left some traces of hand-wringing in the media. Did no bureaucrat worry about the implications of so dramatic an about-face?

The design of the CSA role is also interesting in that it seems to overtake the majority of the Science Minister’s mandate to entrench evidence-based decision-making as the de facto way of working within government. Such a move may be very strategic indeed. A notable goal of the Liberals is to ensure greater longevity to the CSA role than previous federal analogues have had. A Minister’s mandate can change on a dime, so the emphasis on evidence in government could be very fleeting with nothing more than that Mandate as a grounding post. If the CSA role can be successfully entrenched and (at least minimally) secured against future meddling, it might provide a more permanent voice for evidence-based policy, even as the government priorities of the day and the party forming government undergo change.

Finally, Duncan illustrated some stories of encouraging today’s youth to choose science, with “science” interpreted at least broadly enough to cover the natural science & engineering, the health sciences, and the social sciences and humanities. One wonders what is left: with science defined so broadly, is there any choice that is not choosing science? And furthermore, why is it that these heartfelt stories about communicating the value of science writ large are always stories about miraculous developments in technology or medicine?

If we truly believe that science understood so broadly is of great value, then we shouldn’t have trouble picking out a few stories of philosophers going on to develop some fantastic Socratic disruption of society. And if we want our encouragement to choose science to be meaningful, we have to explain what that means, specifically by indicating at least something that falls outside the boundaries of science (and why such a thing is not to be chosen). These are more challenging political issues, which require honest reflection and prioritization, even though someone will definitely end up on the short end of the arrangement.

The Minister opened her speech noting that the current moment is propitious for science in Canada. Indeed it is, and this is a stark reversal of how matters stood under the previous Conservative government. However, now is no time for complacency, and while much has been accomplished, much yet remains—and I hope that this post has illustrated some of the ongoing challenges we have ahead of us in the Canadian science policy community.


Note: All views expressed are those of the individual author and are not necessarily those of Science-Metrix or 1science.


About the author

Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck is the Senior Policy Officer at Science-Metrix in Montreal, where he puts his background in philosophy of science to good use in helping policy types and technical types to understand each other a little better every day. He also takes gleeful pleasure in unearthing our shared but buried assumptions, and generally gadfly-ing everyone in his proximity. He is interested in policy for science as well as science for policy (i.e., evidence-based decision-making), and is progressively integrating himself into the development of new bibliometric indicators at Science-Metrix to address emerging policy priorities. Before working at Science-Metrix, Brooke worked for the Canadian Federal Government. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Guelph and a BA with honours in philosophy from McGill University.

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