Opinion Leader: Can a re-imagined STI advisory council overcome "the arrogance of the new" and learn from the mistakes of the past?

Mark Mann
September 25, 2019

Following one of the recommendations of the Naylor expert panel report on the need for a National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation, and a follow-up report from the Royal Society of Canada on sustainable science advice, the current sitting federal government responded with a call for candidates to apply to a new Council of Science and Innovation. It would provide evidence-based analysis and policy advice to the Ministers on complex issues as well as act as a “sounding board” for the Ministers on short-term and/or urgent issues. The council would also be tasked to publicly report on science and innovation issues of importance to the Government of Canada and to Canadian citizens.

We’ve seen this before.

The past Canadian experiments of this type — Science Council of Canada, National Advisory Board for S&T, Advisory Council on S&T, Science, Technology and Innovation Council, with members appointed under different political regimes — have produced numerous reports and given advice on a variety of public policy topics.

Despite often going nowhere, those reports are still worth reading, given their currency in today’s debates on disruptive technology, global wicked problems and the country’s prosperity.

In the end, past bodies — despite the high quality of their membership — often cratered on what is oft-labelled “the arrogance of the new.” Incoming administrations usually believe they can do better with new structures, and make an impact, with little regard for learning from history or from other experiences elsewhere. Of course, advisory bodies are just that: They give counsel. And their governance structures matter. But their mandate is to propose; it is the polity that ultimately disposes.

Not that others haven’t tried to sustain advisory councils and integrate them into the larger public policy systems. For example, in August, three months after a federal election, Australia’s National S&T Council advising the science, technology and innovation minister met to discuss progress on several fronts, including the development of an AI ethics framework for Australia. It also indicated that the Chief Scientist, who co-chairs the Council, would continue work on research integrity and transparency, as well as the need to ensure ongoing public trust.

In the UK, a search is underway for new members of the Council of Science and Technology co-chaired by the Chief Scientific Advisor. The CST has been around since 1993 and has produced over 50 public reports on cross-cutting issues including AI and the future of genomics.

The U.S. experience has been well-studied and in a 2018 report on the history of White House S&T advisory councils, a key recommendation was that any new President’s Council of Advisors on S&T (PCAST) should  focus the number of topics it addresses and increase the impact and dissemination of its work. The current U.S. administration has yet to appoint a new council.

In the Canadian case, the advisory policy experiments were linked to a science, technology and innovation mInistry, and have disappeared — some for political reasons, others for lack of sustained interest. It is the demand for advice, political and public, that will always be critical for any significant impact from such bodies.

Depending on the current election outcomes, the proposed CSI or some other body may well see the light of day.

That said, to be effective, such a new (re-imagined) advisory body would need to be linked to or integrated with the other elements of the advisory ecosystem, including the Chief Science Advisor (CSA), not to mention the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), sub-national science advisory structures and national academies. In fact, Canada's CSA should ideally co-chair any new Council (as with councils elsewhere), given the growing network of chief scientists within the federal apparatus, along with her links to counterparts in other countries. This would provide the proposed CSI a broader view of the country’s science and innovation system, along with its strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, in her first annual report, the CSA underscored the need to explore how Canada can build a more sustainable ecosystem of science advice by tapping into all of the expertise and talent that it has helped develop.

Sustainable science advice and anchoring it within the country’s overall eco-system linked to global networks needs constant support with appropriate resources, especially in light of the current trends surrounding fake news, and the poor or misuse of evidence to inform decisions. We are faced, as the biologist E O Wilson has argued, with paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology. All the more reason to get our science advisory system working effectively.

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