CSA appointment lauded but debate swirls over scope and breadth of advisory role

Dr Mona Nemer’s appointment as federal chief science advisor (CSA) is receiving rave reviews in science and policy circles. But it has also reignited the debate over whether the new position will represent a significant improvement over past efforts to advise government on important scientific issues, and how this advice will feed into decision making.

“The critical issue is how effective she will be and will anybody have a demand for her advice,” says Paul Dufour, adjunct professor at the Univ of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy and former executive director of the Office of the National Science Advisor. The NSA was created in 2004 under the Paul Martin government only to be shut down four years later under Stephen Harper’s leadership.

At issue are the details of the job’s mandate (see chart), its reporting lines, the scope of its authority and whether there are the appropriate parameters for ensuring how advice is best received and utilized by the prime minister and minister of Science.

Nemer’s appointment caps a 10-month process to select a CSA. The former VP of research at the Univ of Ottawa is an accomplished researcher and administrator who is highly regarded within the research and policy communities.

However, questions remain on whether the position’s final configuration is best suited to advise the government on its investment in, and performance of, science and R&D. The CSA will also be responsible for enhancing the transparent communication of science and evidence-based policy-making, according to the position’s original job description. This was a key criticism of the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) which was established in 2007 to provide confidential advice to the minister of Industry, not the prime minister.

For Nemer to succeed, Dufour contends that she cannot do the job alone. She will need support from the National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation (NACRI), a key recommendation in Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, known as the Naylor report. She will also need to work closely with the three granting councils and the chief scientists from various government departments, provinces and territories, he adds.

Given her modest $2-million budget and a small secretariat to be housed at Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), Dufour says the CSA has to coordinate within the government the network of people with similar jobs.

“The community at large shouldn’t expect miracles from one science advisor,” says Dufour. “They have to help her … and work with her to make sure she’s going to be successful.”

Compared to other developed countries, Canada is still playing catch up when it comes to establishing science advisors that report to government. Quebec is the only province to appoint its own chief scientist, and Ontario is in the final stages of appointing its own.

Quebec chief scientist Dr Remi Quirion says it’s too early to gauge how effective the CSA position will be as other elements in the S&T ecosystem are still being considered by the federal government, such as setting up the NACRI and establishing chief scientists at all science-based departments.

“Having someone in each department who is a mini chief scientist is an improvement. (Former national science advisor Arthur) Carty did not have that interaction with a group of people to evaluate the quality of science in each department,” says Quirion. “With NACRI, it’s important to have some sort of structure that includes the granting councils and the CFI (Canada Foundation for Innovation). Interacting on a regular basis would create a very strong chain to work more closely together to fund research and infrastructure and fund that next Canadian Light Source or telescope.”

Quirion says having a chief scientist office in the federal government and Canada’s two largest provinces will help with planning and coordination.

“It will be great,” he adds. “In a global environment, you need one voice.”

Quirion reports to the minister of Economy, Science and Innovation, and also serves as director of Societal Challenges and Intersectoral Networking at the Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ). He says the dual role — a hybrid of the advisory systems in the UK and Israel – gives him a say in the funding and functioning of the province’s three granting councils.

“Nemer does not have that and will not have much of a say on the (federal) granting councils,” he says.

The CSA as advocate

A group of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows have also waded into the debate, calling for the CSA to be more than an advisor. They want an advocate for science.

“We hope that her experience and position as advisor will promote the importance of science and evidence in policy making in this government,” says Vanessa Sung, co-president of the Montreal-based Science & Policy Exchange.

The SPE also prefers an independent advisor who will advise all members of parliament and the community at large, regardless of political affiliation. “There should be a minimum of any political interference, or none at all, or any real party politics with the advice that’s given by the CSA,” says Shawn McGuirk, SPE co-president.

Universities Canada agrees the CSA should be more than an advisor.

President Paul Davidson says Nemer faces a formidable job in attempting to be both a champion of science within the government science community as well as an advocate for science to the public.

“(Her job) is about ensuring that the best scientific information is brought to bear on policy development, and it’s about the relationship between what’s happening in government and what’s happening in university campuses across the country where almost 40% of research is done,” he adds.

Position remains fluid

Science minister Kirsty Duncan says Nemer will have considerable flexibility in shaping the position which she notes was crafted following extensive consultation both within Canada and internationally.

“Dr Nemer will set the development of what the position will look like,” says Duncan. “It’s important that she work with the internal community as well as the external community.”

That could address questions of whether the CSA will interact with the three federal granting councils, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the science-based departments and agencies within government.

Duncan says she was clear from the outset that foresight be a part of the CSA mandate so that the government knows “what’s coming down the pipe that we should be looking at.”

The minister was less forthcoming about the government’s plans for the proposed NACRI, saying that it’s “early days”. She did confirm that STIC continues to provide advice to the government and that a decision on whether to stick with the status quo or move to a new advisory body will be made clear “as we move forward in the short, medium and long-term”.

“”The (CSA) position varies across countries,” says Duncan. “We wanted to bring science back and have a seat at the federal table.”

CSA Key Functions

i) 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;

ii) Provide advice on creating and implementing processes to ensure that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions;

iii) Assess and recommend ways to improve the existing science advisory function within the federal government;

iv) Assess and recommend ways for the government to better support quality scientific research within the federal system;

v) Deliver an annual report to the prime minister and the minister of Science on the activities of the Office of the Chief Science Advisor and the state of federal government science, including the federal science workforce and federal scientific infrastructure;

vi) Provide and coordinate expert advice to the minister of Science and members of Cabinet, as appropriate and requested, on key scientific issues, including the preparation of research and foresight papers for public dissemination; and,

vii) Promote a positive and productive dialogue between federal scientists and academia, both in Canada and abroad, and raise awareness of scientific issues relevant to the Canadian public.