The past nine years have not been halcyon times for the state of science in Canada.
Previous instances, including the decision to scrap the long form census as well as the unprecedented investigation by the Information Commissioner into complaints of “muzzled” Canadian scientists in the public service, have earned the former Conservative government the reputation of compromising scientific research and its use in policy development.
In response, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government will soon establish a Chief Science Officer to ensure that scientific evidence is considered by cabinet in the decision making processes.
Whether the Chief Science Officer’s role will be truly influential or illusory depends on the way the federal government will conceptualize and implement this role. Although the Chief Science Officer will likely advise cabinet, the Liberal government should also consider establishing a Parliamentary Science Officer as an alternative to or to complement for the lack of institutional independence of the Chief Science Officer.
As the Chief Science Officer will likely report to the Prime Minister, it will probably resemble the former National Science Advisor, which acted as an advisory body within Industry Canada until it was phased out in 2008.
The National Science Advisor was lauded for providing advice to cabinet and ensuring that issues were brought to and discussed at the cabinet table. But the Advisor was not always used: Dr. Arthur Carty, former National Science Advisor, revealed that he was consulted on numerous occasions by former Prime Minister Paul Martin whereas his office was never consulted by former Prime Minister Harper. His role was weakened by its lack of institutional independence as the National Science Advisor’s mandate letter in 2006 was circumscribed to only three specific areas. Thus, the scope of its work was diminished. While a Chief Science Officer could confidentially provide a balanced synopsis of scientific research that would enrich policy development, it risks suffering the same fate of the National Science Advisor.
Consequently, a Parliamentary Science Officer, as proposed by the NDP and the Green Party, may be a desirable alternative for or provide a complimentary role to the Chief Science Officer.
As Parliament’s duty is to scrutinize and hold the executive accountable, a Parliamentary Science Officer in Canada would ensure scientific integrity in government in the same manner that the Parliamentary Budget Officer assists Members of Parliament in overseeing and scrutinizing government activities, particularly public spending. The Parliamentary Science Officer’s oversight function would serve to expose instances where scientific evidence has been disregarded by the government – which may not be possible under a ministerial advisor like the Chief Science Officer.
Consider the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), one of the world’s most influential freshwater research facilities. In 2013, the federal government announced the closure of the ELA despite its breadth of research, particularly regarding the impact of human activities on freshwater systems, such as the increased algae blooms. Rather than continuing funding the ELA, the federal government argued that it could rely on other freshwater research facilities. While the ELA has been transferred from the federal government to the government of Ontario and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, adequate funding for research is still a concern.
The federal government’s decision to scrap the long form census is another example where policy makers disregard both evidence and expert advice. The adoption of the voluntary National Household Survey, rather than conserving the long form census, has deprived policy makers from making informed decisions on various projects, from social programs to infrastructure projects.
Had a Parliamentary Science Officer been established in Canada, Parliament could have been provided with the research and reports necessary to add evidence and perhaps tip the scales to have the federal government reconsider some of their decisions, including the cessation of funding for ELA and adopting the voluntary National Household Survey.
Moreover, the Office would also assist MPs and Senators by preparing briefing notes that synthesize the current state of scientific evidence relevant to any bill or proposal before Parliament. As a result, scientific literacy among Members of Parliament and Ministers would be improved, along with the quality of their advocacy for reasoned and evidence-based policies.
As the Parliamentary Science Officer does not provide advice directly to cabinet in real time, it may be unable to leverage meaningful influence to ensure that the legislative process is informed by sound scientific evidence given the competing environmental, economic and political interests. However, a Parliamentary Science Officer’s influence may increase in the context of a minority government, in which Parliament typically yields more power over the executive branch. Consequently, the Parliamentary Science Officer’s advice during the legislative process may carry increased weight since it would provide MPs and Senators with the research and reports necessary to fulfill their duties.
While a Chief Science Officer is a laudable proposal as it could provide cabinet with confidential, timely and evidence-based advice on policy issues, it might lack the teeth necessary to be a strong advocate for evidence-based policies. Unlike the Parliamentary Science Officer, the Chief Science Officer’s role is not immutable through enabling legislation and is not empowered to access information like other agents of Parliaments. Access to information is crucial to ensure that research is accessible for both the public and Parliament to understand and evaluate the merits of government policies.
To demonstrate its commitment to evidence, the Liberal government should expand the Cabinet Directive on the Environmental Assessment of Policy, Plan and Program Proposals to ensure that policy development include scientific considerations on an equal basis with environmental, economic and social considerations. Subsequently, the Liberal government should also consider establishing a Parliamentary Science Officer and incorporating the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, currently working under the Auditor General, within its office so as to ensure coherent messaging and avoid duplication of resources.
As the Liberals have promised real change, they should not waste this opportunity to reinvigorate the role of scientific evidence within federal politics and democracy.
Alexia Bystrzycki is a third year law student at the University of Ottawa with a keen interest in constitutional law and her policy interests span a broad spectrum of issues ranging from criminal justice to urban policy. Alexia is also an avid reader of the Public Policy Governance Review!