Royal Society paper calls for Liberals to renew overhaul to Canada’s science advice ecosystem

Mark Henderson
January 9, 2019

The Liberal government is being encouraged to complete its overhaul of Canada’s science advisory ecosystem, to ensure that the country captures more of the economic and societal benefits of S&T. After an encouraging start, the impetus for reform appears to have faltered, leaving a worrisome gap between the sources of science advisory capacity and government decision-making, according to a new position paper produced by the Royal Society of Canada. Without better connections and cooperation, the report argues, the investments Canada has made in research in recent decades won’t be effectively exploited.

Entitled The Next Steps for Sustainable Science Advice in Canada, the paper calls for a new “high-level” science and technology advisory committee (STAC) to replace the defunct Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC). The paper also recommends the government further empower the recently appointed chief science advisor (CSA) and embody the role in legislation, recognizing her as the key interlocutor connecting external science and government.

“A significant gap separates this world-class science capacity from actual government decision-making [and] federal action has not been taken to close the internal-external gap,” states the position paper. “The result is that the federal government cannot effectively and efficiently call upon Canada’s world-class science capacity to help address all the urgent social, technological and environmental challenges that face government decision-makers in the 21st century.”

Liberals make halting progress

The Liberal government has already advanced the yardsticks on science and science advice in several key ways since taking office in late 2015. In addition to campaigning on the importance of evidence-based decision-making and unmuzzling scientists to speak publicly about their work, the Liberal Party has resurrected the office of the Chief Science Advisor and filled the position with Dr. Mona Nemer.

Nemer’s achievements in her inaugural year include the release of a Model Policy on Scientific Integrity. Her support for scientific research helped to realize a multi-million-dollar investment in science and innovation in Budget 2018, including unprecedented increases in the budgets of the three federal granting councils.

Elsewhere, the Liberal government’s progress has stalled. Since taking office, they have wound down STIC, although its demise remains unofficial and a promised replacement has yet to be announced. The RSC position paper claims that omission is contributing to a gap separating Canada’s “world-class science capacity from actual government decision-making.”

“We feel very confident that the government is in fact ready to act,” says Dr. Chad Gaffield, RSC president and former president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. “They recognize the potential of this and the onus is on [the RSC] to become co-creators of this new structure with them. This paper is an attempt to say, yes, here we are and this is something that would work well for us. My sense is it’s up to them to take advantage of that and take the step forward.”

Demand for sustainability

Paul Dufour, who had a hand in drafting the position paper, argues that the paper’s recommendations to enshrine a new STAC and enhance the power of the CSA could yield the kind of enduring results that Canada sorely needs.

READ MORE: Paul Dufour welcomes the RSC’s efforts to rejuvenate itself in a recent Opinion Leader column: ‘Reimagining’ National Academies: A Northern Minerva Reboots

“Sustainability is the key to get away from this kind of snowman syndrome in this country. We build these nice snowmen and they disappear in the spring and we build them again,” says Dufour, a veteran S&T policy practitioner, principal of PaulicyWorks and an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa.  “The idea is to think about how to legislate like in other countries …to make it a bit more sustainable. That’s the key issue here.”

Timed for impact

The timing of the paper’s release is also important, coming in the midst of the federal government’s pre-Budget consultations. Dufour notes that the Budget is an opportunity for the government to recommit to its support for scientific research and innovation as well as implement some of the lower profile recommendations contained in the Fundamental Science Review.

“The idea is to drop [the position paper] into the system while they’re thinking about the Budget. It falls squarely within the Liberal platform of supporting science and supporting evidence and its use in decision-making,” says Dufour. The paper recalls the SAGE Report — Science Advice for Government Effectiveness (1999) — that was previously adopted, says Dufour. “We just brought it back to the table Why not put that back on the agenda to be adapted to the current context? There’s something to build on right there.”

An expanding role for the RSC

The paper also marks an advance in the RSC’s objective to assume a larger role in Canada’s S&T policy environment. In its recommendation for a new STAC, the paper proposes that at least three officials from the RSC and its member academies should be given ex officio status on the new committee.

“Right now the world is feeling a deep sense of uncertainty and we have a real opportunity to contribute.” - Dr. Chad Gaffield, RSC president

Last year during Canada’s hosting of the G7 annual summit, the RSC and its member academies stepped forward and produced papers on key issues with a scientific underpinning — the Arctic, climate change and artificial intelligence — drawing on Canada’s deep research expertise in these areas. The RSC’s efforts have been widely lauded for highlighting the importance of science in a global context.

“What we’re doing is taking the initiative and offering something that would work well from our point of view,” says Gaffield. “Right now, the world is feeling a deep sense of uncertainty and we have a real opportunity to contribute, in terms of working through some of these challenges and opportunities and suggesting that yes, evidence is one of the solutions, and insights from rigorous research are really helpful.”


Other News

Events For Leaders in
Science, Tech, Innovation, and Policy

Discuss and learn from those in the know at our virtual and in-person events.

See Upcoming Events

You have 1 free article remaining.
Don't miss out - start your free trial today.

Start your FREE trial    Already a member? Log in


By using this website, you agree to our use of cookies. We use cookies to provide you with a great experience and to help our website run effectively in accordance with our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.