Cogent, timely science advice is a hallmark of advanced, knowledge-based nations but as recent Canadian events have demonstrated, that capacity can often be weakened or even taken away as political winds shift and governments change.
In Ottawa, expectations that Kirsty Duncan would return to being solely responsible for the Science portfolio went unrealized in today’s Cabinet shuffle. Rather than appointing another minister for Sport, Duncan retains the title (minus the Persons with Disabilities component?) thereby perpetuating the Science ministry’s status as a junior-level position.
Some comfort, however, can be taken in Navdeep Bain’s retention of the Innovation, Science and Economic Development portfolio, providing the critical link between knowledge generation and economic development. The Liberal government has made considerable effort to streamline and bolster research and innovation, so having a constant, steady hand at the wheel indicates a continuing commitment to the knowledge-based economy and overall ecosystem.
In Ontario, the new Progressive Conservative government of Doug Ford has dismissed the province’s first ever chief scientist just months after her appointment by the previous Liberal administration. While the Ford government has indicated a replacement will be chosen at an unspecified future date, it’s a worrying sign that the formidable slate of science, technology and innovation (STI) measures now in place could also be subject to similarly cavalier treatment.
Switching up senior unelected officials is common with a change in government, but Dr Molly Shoichet’s dismissal and the Ford government’s silence on anything resembling STI send a clear signal to Ontario’s science community and knowledge-based businesses that they don’t matter. This is a dangerous but not totally unexpected development, given Ford’s lack of a coherent election platform and his Trumpian anti-elitist rhetoric.
Having a powerful science minister is a key policy component in any well-functioning government. They connect the ecosystem and align the players essential to increased productivity and global competitiveness. That message clearly isn’t resonating in Ontario and Canada as loudly as it should.
Mark Henderson, Senior Correspondent