Much is being made lately of the role of science advisors in the context of the pandemic. They are essential players in the discourse around evidence and data to inform decision-making. Of course, science advisors have been around for centuries counselling kings, queens, heads of state, governments, nations, the informed public — they just weren’t called that. And during the war efforts of 80 years ago, science advisors were key to tackling challenges and finding solutions. Today, with the increased scale and pace of science, advisors appear more on tap, even if they do not have the final say in decision-making.
It’s important to remember that science advisors are people, not disembodied knowledge. They come with their own backgrounds and baggage. They usually have a particular discipline or field of knowledge in which they are clearly expert, and this can influence the focus of their work. At times, appointed experts confuse advocacy with advice, which can be career limiting. There is no training for science advisors; they are appointed or come into the job for different reasons and respond accordingly. Science advice is not a science — it is an art, and knowledge of the political and decision-making systems can be an asset.
Success depends on where the advisory function is located and how the reporting channels are designed. A well-defined mandate is also essential. Further, decision-makers actually wanting advice is key to any successful science advisory experiment; in short, receptors for the advice is a sine qua non. It can also be useful if the position is surrounded by other sources of reliable expertise.
But above all, humility is required. As Emilio Daddario, one of the key players in the creation of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment in the US, once said, “The belief is widely held that scientists need only to be placed in the inner court for reason to prevail.” But the relationship is much more complex than that, as today’s science advisory environment suggests.
The latest evolution of the global spread of science advisors is seen in part through the International Network of Government Science Advice (INGSA). But there are many other key organizations in this sphere, including academies of science, academic institutes, international organizations, think tanks, science and technology councils, science ministers, and the like. In particular, the work of the US financier William Golden in the early 90s to launch the Carnegie Group of science advisors and ministers should be recognized. He had been an advisor to Harry Truman in the 50s and was instrumental in suggesting the need for a science advisor to the President.
What follows is a sketch of the key Canadian science advisors over the past decades.
The earliest de facto science advisor was a President of the NRC. CJ (Jack) Mackenzie, a New Brunswick-born civil engineer who served in the role from 1939 to 1952, provided advice to the Canadian PM in the WWII years. He also weighed in on research and technical matters such as suggesting to Winston Churchill that it was impossible to build an aircraft carrier from an iceberg (despite pressures from within Whitehall).
Under Mackenzie, the NRC was reorganized to provide a stronger foundation to support basic science and industry development. In 1963, Mackenzie was appointed special advisor by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to provide counsel on the organization of government scientific activities. Mackenzie wrote an informal progress report on January 28, 1964, making several recommendations to the PM, some of which were instituted as Canada’s science policy machinery became institutionalized.
With the creation in the early 60s of a Science Secretariat initially led by the mining engineer Frank Forward in the Privy Council Office (PCO), a chief science advisor to the Cabinet was named in May 1969 —the University of Toronto PhD geophysicist Robert Uffen.
As he described his role in a Science Forum article in 1969, a science advisor’s “influence may depend less on his ability as a scientist than on his ability to trade information and assess rumours.” The Science Secretariat in the PCO consisted of ten staff, and its primary task was to help government departments and agencies in getting their proposals before the cabinet. As well, the Secretariat conducted its own studies and put forward proposals when the government requested it.
When the Ministry of State for Science and Technology (MOSST) was established in 1971 along with the appointment of the first science Minister Alastair Gillespie (he was twice science minister), and a Science Council of Canada in 1966 (eliminated in 1992), science advice became more professionalized.
In 1983, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appointed Louis Berlinguet, a Laval-educated PhD in chemistry, as Chief Science Advisor to the federal government, in addition to his role as Secretary of MOSST.
He was given responsibility for providing expert advice on the priorities for and planning of Canada’s overall S&T effort. His mandate was to help restructure the MOSST, as it was eventually folded into the Ministry of State for Economic Development under Minister Donald Johnston. As Berlinguet said in a CCN interview in April 1984, “I don’t think the chief science advisor should be looked on as a lobby for the scientific community.”
In 1984, Berlinguet wrote a “science and technology sector perspective” outlining the priority issues for action. In the report, he argued that the government’s Chief Science Advisor should present annually to Cabinet a status report on Canadian S&T with recommendations as to priority issues, along with broad guidelines for the allocation of S&T resources. As well, he suggested that the feasibility and utility of creating a focal point in Parliament for discussion of S&T issues should be examined.
In late 2003, Prime Minister Paul Martin appointed Arthur Carty, a British-educated PhD chemist and then-president of the NRC, as National Science Advisor (NSA).
His mandate that began in April 2004 was to “ensure that Canada’s investments in science and technology are strategic, focused and delivering results, and to bring about a fuller integration of the government’s substantial in-house science and technology activity.” The NSA helped create the Canadian Academy of Sciences (CCA) and the International S&T Partnerships Program, as well as a framework for large-scale science investments, a nanotechnology strategy and a science culture promotion approach, among other initiatives. The office and position were eliminated in 2008, and a Parliamentary Committee hearing was convened to assess why the office was abolished.
In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Mona Nemer, a McGill PhD biochemist and former VP Research at the University of Ottawa, as Chief Science Advisor. Her remit is to provide advice on the development and implementation of guidelines to ensure that government science is fully available to the public and that federal scientists are able to speak freely about their work; provide advice on creating and implementing processes to ensure that scientific analyses are considered when the Government makes decisions.
The mandate is also to assess and recommend ways to improve the existing science advisory function within the federal government; assess and recommend ways for the Government to better support quality scientific research within the federal system.
Her office has also released a roadmap on open science and she has established a Youth Council for counsel on some key next-generation issues. Currently, the CSA and her office are focused with managing and assessing science inputs to COVID-19 through various expert panels and task forces.
Science advice has had a checkered institutional history in Canada. It has waxed and waned with changing political and public policy interests. The need for a receptor capacity remains key. It can also help if there are champions at the political level as well as continuing pressures from the informed public along with the knowledge communities.
Paul Dufour is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, as well as Principal at Paulicyworks.