Campaign calls on Ottawa to formalize the Chief Science Advisor’s position

Lindsay Borthwick
September 23, 2020

In an open letter sent to the Prime Minister and Ministers Freeland and Bains, Evidence for Democracy (E4D) is calling for the position of Canada’s Chief Science Advisor (CSA) to be made permanent and for the CSA’s mandate to be expanded and updated.

Pointing to an increasingly important role for science advice and evidence-based policymaking in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and charting a sustainable and inclusive recovery, E4D writes: “The world has changed since Dr. Mona Nemer started her term as CSA almost three years ago, but the need for strong science advice in government has solidified and grown. The position of CSA must reflect the changing landscape globally and here in Canada and must be protected to ensure it can stand up to future challenges, emergencies, and changes in government.” 

The position is currently held by Dr. Mona Nemer (PhD), who was appointed to a three-year term in 2017. That term is set to expire this week. At the time of publication, no announcement had been made about a renewal of the position. (Research Money contacted the Privy Council Office, which oversees Governor-in-Council appointments like Dr. Nemer's, as well as ISED, where her office is situated. Neither provided an update on the status of the appointment.) 

In an interview with Research Money, E4D’s interim executive director, Dr. Kimberly Girling (PhD), said she does not expect the CSA’s mandate to end. The campaign aims to ensure science advice is not only maintained but also protected by enshrining the position in legislation. 

“We wanted to put into motion a public call to protect science advice and the structures for science advice because right now the Office [of the CSA] isn't legislated. Given the fact that we have a minority government and that we're heading into an economic crisis, it's potentially at risk,” she said.

The open letter was signed by 2,000 people prior to its delivery on September 14.

Dr. Jim Woodgett (PhD), Director of Research at Sinai Health System in Toronto, signed the open letter. In an email to Research Money, he said he fully supports the position of the CSA.

"A CSA is an advisor to government and the advice can be ignored, but at least having a skilled person in this position provides a mechanism to provide unvarnished views and to explain complicated issues raised by developments. I have no doubt that the CSA has been instrumental in collating data and evidence to inform government during the pandemic and we’ve seen that in the political messaging—guided by science. It’s a massive contrast with the denial and distrust being issued in the US," Woodgett wrote.

A Call to Legislate

History shows that science advice in Canada is politically vulnerable.

In 2004, Dr. Arthur Carty (PhD), former president of the National Research Council, became Canada’s first national science advisor (NSA) since 1971. The post, created by the Liberal government of Paul Martin, was viewed as a signal of the importance of science, technology and innovation (STI) in government policy and a buttress against partisan politics. Four years later, his office was closed and the position eliminated by the Conservative government under Stephen Harper. Canada became one of the few industrialized nations at the time without a national science advisor. 

The Liberal Party pledged to resurrect the position during its 2015 election campaign. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Nemer Canada’s new top scientist on September 26, 2017, as part of its commitment to “strengthen science in government decision-making and to support scientists’ vital work,” the announcement received widespread support in the STI community.  

These vagaries have led to the misconception that the role is partisan, said Girling, adding, "Part of the reason I think legislation is important is to decouple the science advisor from the particular government of the day."

E4D's call to make the role permanent actually isn't new or unique. In a 2018 report on the future of sustainable science advice, the Royal Society of Canada recommended the government formally recognize the CSA as "the key interlocutor connecting external science," and embody the role in legislation: "Legislation to establish the CSA position is recommended given the fact that, dating back to the 1960s, the Government of Canada has institutionalized a CSA function in a series of arrangements that never lasted more than a few years," the report stated.

Woodgett agreed the office should be permanent: "This may be a trivial point and the government has every intention of continuance but there should be no doubt about the need for a mechanism to flow and assimilate scientific advice, at the highest level, to government, as amply demonstrated by Covid-19. Renewal would be a useful means to remind people that competence and respect for science is a critical plank for government policy determinations."

E4D's open letter also calls for the CSA's mandate to be updated and expanded, with a concomitant increase to the office's budget. Specifically, it recommends the mandate maintain a science and technology lens in Canada’s COVID-19 recovery plan; develop a national S&T strategy that engages provinces, territories, and Indigenous governments; support work on equity, diversity, and inclusion; ensure adherence to scientific integrity policies and the open science roadmap; support S&T foresight capacity; and lead a whole-of-government review of evidence-informed decision-making.

"The fact is, we have an explosion of knowledge in the world and also a fair bit of confusion, and we need people who can help us deal with that constellation," said Dr. Marc Saner (PhD), Chair of the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Ottawa. Saner is an expert on governance, science advice, ethics and risk management who served as the inaugural director of the University's Institute for Science, Society and Policy.

However, he said before moving to enshrine the position in law, the federal government should carefully consider what the role of a CSA should be. "Formalizing the role would provide an opportunity to discuss that explicitly," he said. "Is the [advisor's role] internal or external? Is it science for policy, or policy for science? And, does it encompass all forms of knowledge or just the best-funded scientific endeavors?"


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