The new Chief Science Advisor position is the top job at the science–policy interface in Canada. While attending the 9th Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa earlier this month, the other conference-goers and I were lucky to get a glimpse of how Dr. Mona Nemer—newly named to the job—understands evidence-based decision-making. In this week’s post, I’ll give a summary of her remarks at the CSPC and distill the main views on evidence-based decision-making that they seem to reflect.
The format of the presentation was discursive, opening with an extended Q&A between Dr. Nemer and Mehrdad Hariri (helmsman of the CSPC), followed by a Q&A exchange between Dr. Nemer and general participants asking questions from the floor. One of the first topics of discussion was the specific mandate of the new CSA position, which Dr. Nemer identified as assuring that evidence gets considered in the decision-making process of government. In practical terms, this apparently entails the provision of scientific evidence to the Minister of Science, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet more generally.
The Chief Science Advisor clarified that she reads “science” and “evidence” as very broad in scope, encompassing the natural sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Accordingly, an important part of the role will be to convene and coordinate the scientific community. While Dr. Nemer insisted several times that science doesn’t have any borders, she noted the challenge arising from our propensity to work in siloes—disciplinary siloes, sectoral siloes, and sometimes national siloes. These siloes must be brought down if we are to integrate the most full-blooded evidence into our decision-making.
In this vein, the next few months will serve for the Chief Science Advisor to orient herself in the terrain, meeting with researchers and research managers, within government as well as outside. This canvassing spree will hopefully develop a strong network that Dr. Nemer will then be able to deploy quickly and effectively when needs arise. She emphasized several times the importance of collaboration to make her role effective, enabling her to be a viable channel for the best evidence to make its way into decision-making at the very top.
Regarding her relationship to that “very top,” Hariri asked an interesting question: What do you do if the Prime Minister and the Cabinet do not follow the advice provided? Obviously that question was bait, and with many federal scientists having experienced exactly this kind of situation under the previous government, there was definitely appetite in the room to hear how she intended to mount a Great Crusade in the Name of Truth. However, her response I think showed the depth of how relationships between governmental science and decision-making have changed since the end of the Harper years: apparently Prime Minister Trudeau said to Nemer, “You take care of the evidence; I’ll take care of the politics.” There are surely more cynical readings available, but my take was very aspirational: tell me frankly what I need to know, and I’ll manage all the jockeying to make sure that we do the right thing.
Continuing along those lines, Dr. Nemer pointed out that her role is to present evidence and elucidate the options for consideration—but not to actually make the decisions that are rightly the responsibility of Cabinet or the Prime Minister. The Chief Science Advisor is not an elected official, and it would be inappropriate for her to take on those decision-making powers that we entrust to those we elect. However, she stated clearly that while the decisions were not hers to make, the one thing she would not tolerate in this process is the misrepresentation of evidence. Making decisions is the purview of the elected government, even if they are made badly. But dressing up convenient decisions as sensible ones backed by evidence is deceptive and intolerable. It isn’t the crusade that many in the audience may have been hoping for, but I think that Dr. Nemer’s response here showed the extent and boundaries of the CSA’s rightful duties, and her response struck me as just the right one. We the people hold our governments to account, and the role she sees for herself here is to support the transparency that enables us to do so, not to overtake that function from us.
During the open question period, I asked Dr. Nemer to clarify something—much like Hariri’s, my question was bait. If evidence-based decision-making is what we’re working towards, then what is it that we’re doing right now? What needs to change to achieve an effective system for evidence-based decision-making, and how do we transition from here to there? Unfortunately, she didn’t fall for my lure either, and we didn’t get the salacious satisfaction of hearing from our Chief Science Advisor that the current government is fuelled primarily by cigar smoke and back-room dealings. Rather, the current system is facing a new challenge, which is the growing scientific complexity of the policy topics we’re facing.
This complexity calls for a new approach to gathering, integrating and considering evidence. In turn, because those various disciplinary foci are segregated across departments (in both the academic and government senses), our institutional structures and cultures need to be modified in order to promote stronger interfaces between them. Dr. Nemer identified this focus on horizontal integration as a key point for her work, one that she explicitly identified as crucial to providing the best evidence possible for policymakers.
At this point, I’ll break off from Dr. Nemer’s discussion and start to dissect what I see as the major challenges for her role. First of all, integrating a wide breadth of disciplines is an enormous challenge. Dr. Nemer espouses a broad view on science, defining the “scientific approach” as impartial, objective, posing the right questions, gathering relevant data, and drawing a conclusion based on the weight of evidence. What types of data are considered relevant will vary dramatically from one discipline to the next, how to identify the “weight” of evidence will as well, and there is already a power dynamic between disciplines that sees “hard” sciences (as opposed to all those easy sciences) getting a bigger seat at the table when designing interdisciplinary studies. And that’s before even getting into areas of research that explicitly deny that objectivity and impartiality are even possible!
However, the omission that stood out to me as most problematic is that policy decisions don’t all get made at the Cabinet table or in the Prime Minister’s Office. There are decisions made every day all the way up and down the bureaucratic hierarchy; even the decisions of Cabinet or the Prime Minister are shaped by the civil service, who play an important role in framing the issues for consideration. Dr. Nemer focused on the horizontal integration of science across disciplines and departments, and on the connection between the scientific endeavour and the apex of the political apparatus. What about all the intermediary connections down the chain—from the top to the front lines—ensuring that decisions made by the bureaucracy are also informed by evidence?
Another conference attendee asked how the Chief Science Advisor can keep up to speed on the policy discussions that are underway, to ensure that evidence is marshalled and available in a timely fashion. Dr. Nemer’s response was that she would collaborate closely with the Science Minister, Prime Minister and Cabinet, “sitting at the right tables” to know what’s being discussed and to be ready. The primary challenge that I feel was overlooked in her address to the CSPC is that there are far too many tables at which she would need to sit.
I believe that Dr. Nemer has a deep appreciation of the fact that policy topics have grown to a level of scientific complexity that calls for research itself to evolve in order to keep up. I worry that the very same complexity of policy topics also calls for government itself to evolve—and that this need calls for evidence-based decision-making to be integrated all the way up and down the hierarchy rather than only at the very top.
Note: All views expressed are those of the individual author and are not necessarily those of Science-Metrix or 1science.