Editorial: A teachable moment in the evolving relationship between government and science

This week, Canadians who care about innovation, research, and development marked three major milestones. It has been exactly a decade since the Death of Evidence March, when hundreds of protesters came to Parliament Hill accompanied by a coffin full of scientific papers. They were registering their displeasure with a government that had recently cut off funding for the venerable Experimental Lakes Area, a remote setting in Northwestern Ontario that had hosted full-scale projects in freshwater ecology for decades. It was deemed to be the act of a government with a disdain for the value of science, if not scientists themselves.

The protests spawned Evidence for Democracy, an organization dedicated to promoting the role of scientific information in the framing of public policy. Over the past 10 years this independent, not-for-profit body has mounted workshops to help members of the research community learn how to convey their ideas and knowledge in public settings, and with policy-makers in particular. Although the original flash point for the protests were around the government’s approach to climate change, an equally important challenge arrived in 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic, where policy debates regularly turned on the extent to which scientific findings supported particular courses of action.

It may be hard to quantify or measure the success of Evidence for Democracy’s self-declared mandate, but this week’s second milestone offers some indication of the difference a decade has made: Dr. Mona Nemer was reappointed as Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, a post she has occupied for the past five years. That confirmation stands in stark contrast to one of signal complaints of the 2012 protestors, the unceremonious way in which it had sidelined the previous Office of the National Science Advisor.

Advisors, not advocates

It is easy to blame the ensuing absence of a formal communication channel between science and government for policies that could be criticized for ignoring hard data gathered through research, such as rejecting calls to impose economic cost on carbon as a way of adapting industrial activities to mitigate the impact of climate change. The reappointment of the federal government’s science advisor may well confirm a willingness to maintain just such a channel, but it is worth remembering that not every policy problem succumbs to a scientific solution. As much as scientists endeavour to sort out the complex world around us, policy may be still more complex, and include dimensions that many investigators might not want to think about, but business and government leaders are forced to consider — messy matters, such as who pays, how much they pay, why they want to pay, and why anyone should care about paying.

In the early 2000s, I was fortunate enough to attend a highly candid session in Washington where John Marburger, chief science advisor to then US President George W. Bush, was grilled by an audience of science writers who demanded his accounting of another administration that was deemed hostile to all things scientific. The most notorious example of such hostility was American federal government’s action to curtail research on stem cells, often accompanied by inflammatory rhetoric suggesting that such work might be linked to abortion.

Marburger was asked repeatedly and pointedly if the President “got” the scientific significance of stem cells, and, more importantly, if he was capable of appreciating their significance. Marburger unflinchingly responded that he had done his job, had explained this research accurately, and in detail, along with his confident conclusion that the President had listened and understood. “The President knows about stems cells,” Marburger insisted, adding the crucial proviso that this was as far as his role extended.

Since then I have heard a variety of science advisors describe their work, and they invariably emphasize their place as just one member of a team engaged in policy deliberations. Theirs is never the final word, nor are they necessarily even the champions of any particular scientific perspective, something that frequently dismays their professional colleagues, who sometimes regard these advisors as “insiders” who can help specific projects cross a political finish line.

In fact, the objectivity and neutrality of science advisors secure the trust that ushers hard scientific evidence into volatile political settings. And the outcome can cut both ways, as least as far as enthusiastic scientific proponents might be concerned. For fans of stem cells in the Bush years, it was an unhappy ride, characterized by an ethical and regulatory framework that limited the scope of what might be learned. On the other hand, a different path led to this week’s third milestone — the release of breathtaking “first light” images from the James Webb Space Telescope.

A telescope too far?

The prospect of obtaining those images was quite dim in 2018, when this ambitious observatory’s multi-billion budget was mired in delays and massive cost overruns. Even within the space sector it was regarded as a white elephant stealing resources from more worthwhile undertakings. NASA ultimately convinced a bureaucratic rainmaker to sort it all out. Gregory Robinson was deputy administrator of programs for NASA, liked his work, and really did not want to wade into someone else’s mess. However, he was also highly regarded as an outstanding fixer and institutional bridge-builder, so after repeated requests he became Webb’s program history. Four years later, the ending is a happy one, but an objective government science advisor might well have respected Robinson’s reluctance and suggested the telescope should not be saved, that it was time to fail fast and let it go.

Nevertheless, this week, there was US President Joe Biden narrating the release of these images, the technology accomplishment that they represent, and the scientific potential that they promise. A hard-nosed analysis might have dismissed the economic, political, and social returns of this massive investment in the telescope — including a substantial contribution by the Canadian Space Agency — as too limited to be worthwhile. And yet the policy result supported an instrument with an unprecedented view of the heavens, while other proposals were turned down.

In this context, it is worth noting that Biden’s nominee for his next science advisor — the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy — is an engineer, Arati Prabhakar, who led the country’s prominent Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency under President Barack Obama. In a 2020 interview with the American Institute of Physics, she revealed how she regarded the role of science and the more practical aspects associated with policy. “You know, science’s verbs are ‘know’ and ‘understand’,” she said. “Those are not my verbs. Yes, let’s know and understand, but I want to do engineering’s verbs, which are ‘solve’ and ‘create’.”

Were a troubled venture like the James Webb Space Telescope to have crossed her desk in 2018, she might have tossed it, and we would have no breathtaking pictures of deep space to contemplate. Or, we might be closer to the solution of some more vexing problem, with specific social and economic implications.

This is just the kind of political setting that that Mona Nemer has been facing since 2017, and now will do so for at least two more years. This week’s milestones make it the right time to reflect on the impact of her office, and how it stands with respect to the expectations that are still part of Evidence for Democracy. Research Money looks forward to exploring this history, as well as the way ahead, and presenting what we find to you. Watch for these stories in the coming months.