Council of Canadian Academies launches federally-supported projects to assess urgent scientific challenges

Mark Lowey
April 14, 2021

The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) has launched four new projects to assess artificial intelligence, carbon sinks, safety in the digital age and the impacts of health and science misinformation.

The Ottawa-based CCA regularly convenes experts from Canada and abroad to evaluate the best available evidence of complex scientific topics of public interest. These reports provide government decision-makers, as well as researchers and stakeholders, with high-quality information and evidence to develop informed and innovative public policy.

“We’re pleased the government has asked CCA to take on these important projects,” Eric M. Meslin, president and CEO of the CCA, said in an email to Research Money. “They highlight some of the most urgent challenges facing Canada and the world and will tap into the best available evidence and expertise to help inform government policy decisions.”

The use of AI and machine learning in science and engineering has the potential to radically transform the nature of scientific inquiry and discovery as well as produce a wide range of social and economic benefits for Canada, the CCA said. “But adoption of these technologies also presents a number of potential challenges and risks.”

The “AI for Science and Engineering” assessment will examine the legal/regulatory, ethical, policy and social challenges related to the use of AI technologies in scientific research and discovery.

This is the CCA’s first co-sponsored assessment. The lead sponsor is National Research Council Canada, which has a new “AI for Design” Challenge program that aims to develop AI algorithms, methods and datasets that can advance scientific research and engineering in Canada’s innovation ecosystem.

Co-sponsors of the CCA assessment are CIFAR (previously known as the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research), Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The AI assessment is scheduled for release in 2022.

The other three assessments, all scheduled for release in 2022-23, are funded by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) for various government department sponsors, under the CCA’s contribution agreement with ISED.

“Canada’s Carbon Sink Potential” is sponsored by Environment and Climate Change Canada. It will focus on natural systems — plants, soils, aquatic and marine environments — that absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release.

Carbon sinks have the potential to help Canada meet its climate commitment under the 2015 Paris Agreement. Canada agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels (a reduction from 730 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent to 511 Mt CO2e in 2030).

An expert panel will examine the potential for enhancing carbon storage in natural carbon sinks to support climate change mitigation and adaptation planning in Canada.

Public safety and misinformation in the digital age

The two other assessments focus on public safety and misinformation online.

“Public Safety in the Digital Age,” an assessment sponsored by Public Safety Canada, will examine practices that could help to address threats to public safety.

"While the digital revolution has brought about many positive changes, it has also created opportunities for criminal organizations and malicious actors to target individuals, businesses, and systems," the CCA said in their release. They said that law enforcement agencies and other organizations must constantly adapt their tools and methods to prevent and respond to crimes committed online.

The fourth new assessment, “The Socio-Economic Impacts of Health and Science Misinformation,” is sponsored by ISED and will focus on the speed and intensity with which misinformation spreads.

As COVID-19 spread throughout the globe, a corresponding surge in misinformation followed. False information about masks, treatments and vaccines undermined public trust, sowed confusion, and affected the spread and containment of the virus, the CCA noted. In some places, vaccine hesitancy has threatened “herd immunity,” causing infectious diseases, such as measles, to re-emerge.

“There is an urgent need to critically examine the real-life impacts of science and health misinformation, which can affect the well-being of people, communities and the environment,” the CCA said.

An expert panel will examine the socio-economic costs of misinformation and the impact on public trust in, engagement with, and understanding of science and science-informed policies as well as leading practices for assessing and responding to misinformation.

The CCA is currently recruiting panel members for all four new assessments with all expert panels to be announced in June. All CCA reports are available to the public free of charge.


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