Science policy
Science advice in Canada: reborn again?
February 7, 2018
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Science advice is apparently having a “moment” right now in Canada. Quebec has had a chief scientist since 2011, but both the federal government and the Ontario provincial government named chief science advisors in the second half of 2017. For the first time, at the end of January 2018, the three chief scientists appeared publicly together, on a panel organized by the Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP) at the University of Ottawa. This attracted no small number of science policy nerds. While the event was billed as a new renaissance for science advice, that does raise the question of when exactly its prior incarnations occurred. In today’s post, we’ll present a summary of the discussions, along with some critical reflections.

Mind the gap

Given the name-brand recognition of the event, it came as little surprise that the lineup of introductions was long and the speakers heavily alphabetized—the university equivalent of the red carpet. However, even the introductory remarks were engaging. University President Jacques Frémont reported that many deputy ministers point out that they have plenty of scientists in their departments, and plenty of policy people too, but barely anybody in between. Apparently, this is a massive staffing challenge for the federal government, and it would be surprising to hear that others did not face similar challenges.

Implicit in this analysis is that there ought to be people between scientists and policymakers. If we want science and policy to be connected, there needs to be some conduit in between. But that conduit need not be another type of person—another classification of civil servant. An alternative to introducing science communicators as a bridge between one silo of science and another silo of policy is just to tear down those siloes. For as much as “tearing down siloes” is very much the lingo du jour, we don’t seem to be experimenting very much with highly integrated teams.

In short, science types and policy types don’t have to work in isolated directorates of the bureaucracy. Try putting them in the same office with the same boss and see how long they manage to continue talking right past each other. Effective science advice for policy relies on robust institutions to provide the space for that input to find its way into policy discussions. The institutional response to this problem can take many forms, and staffing an army of science–policy liaisons is only one such form. As the three chief scientists pointed out several times during the event, their roles alone will not be sufficient to bridge the gap between science and policy; the response must be communal and broad-based.

Between the snowman and the zombie

Paul Dufour quips that too often in Canada we have built “snowmen” for science policy: advising infrastructure melts with every change of the political season. This challenge is apparently one that’s being tackled head-on, as Dr. Mona Nemer, the federal chief science advisor, has stated that one of her primary goals during her mandate is to ensure that she’s only the first in a long lineage of people to occupy this office. Rémi Quirion, Quebec’s chief scientist, has lasted through several changes in provincial government and done an admirable job being flexible and demonstrating the value of his role under a variety of circumstances. His track record notwithstanding, the longevity and durability of science advisory mechanisms has been a problem in Canada.

However, there are other political contexts where the problem is zombies rather than snowmen: institutions that are so set in stone that they go on living well after they’ve served their purpose. The challenge there is perhaps not that the institutions go on living, but rather that they cannot be reoriented towards the areas of more substantive need—that they cannot find new meaning in life. This challenge is also one of which we should remain aware. Building a science advice mechanism to last a thousand years is great. However, if we worry so much about its survival that it becomes deaf to its purpose, we’ll end up with enormous, bureaucratic legacy systems that quickly become incapable of keeping up with the evolving set of challenges it must address.

Problems, problems, problems

Dr. Nemer remarked that “science needs to become everyone’s business.” We need to shift towards a culture of evidence, where our natural, intuitive response when confronted with a problem is to ask immediately what evidence would be relevant to address it, where that evidence might be available, and how we might assess it. As Nemer suggests, this means starting from the problems we’re looking to solve and working backwards. But some prominent people (and less prominent people) in the science policy world have argued that neither policymakers nor scientists on their own are uniquely positioned to frame policy problems for scientific analysis.

If we’re to take Dr. Nemer’s point to heart, then, it suggests that the connections between researchers and policymakers cannot be punctual points of contact but must rather be a story of continuous interaction. (Marc Saner, who was also on the panel, provides a useful taxonomy for the integration of science advice into policy.) When we build a system where scientists and decision-makers connect only periodically, we’re implicitly stating that evidence is only periodically relevant to our decisions. A small handful of prominent chief science advisors will not be enough to bring about a shift towards a culture of evidence in government. Neither will an army of liaisons, and their rarity suggests that no such army could even be raised if we were to sound the bugle.

Wrapping up

This summary and response covered only one of the major lines of discussion, but the event as a whole touched on several other issues as well (and not just in passing, as their mention here may suggest). Notable among them was the importance of science literacy among the public, which all three science advisors highlighted as a very important topic. The federal Minister of Science has emphasized the importance of this as well in recent months. There were also some exchanges about the importance and challenge of integrating social sciences and humanities with the natural sciences, including but not limited to the policymaking process. Similar difficulties present a serious challenge to the integration of Indigenous knowledge as well, with the added complication of a long history of terrible power imbalance and mistreatment. No small task faces these chief scientists, and we should all be figuring out what we can do to help them find and implement effective solutions.


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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