S&T portfolio in turmoil
The Office of the National Science Advisor (ONSA) is being shut down by the government of Stephen Harper and Dr Arthur Carty has decided to retire, RE$EARCH MONEY has learned. The move comes less than four years after its creation by the Liberal government of Paul Martin. The decision to terminate Carty’s office and position was made earlier this month and has yet to be announced. It leaves Canada as one of the few advanced industrialized nations without a national science advisor or chief scientist.
Carty’s departure as Canada’s first national science advisor since 1971 and the demise of the ONSA end months of speculation on their fate, which began in earnest when the NSA was transferred from the Privy Council Office (PCO) to Industry Canada in May/06 (R$, May 16/06). Neither Industry Canada nor the ONSA were available for comment by press deadline.
The office’s closure brings the previous government’s efforts to establish a top-level advisory role for S&T to an ignominious end. Since its inception, the ONSA was severely circumscribed in its ability to provide science advice to the prime minister. There is now just one advisory body remaining – the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC), but its activities are confidential and its advice to government will remain private.
“It’s a disgrace,” says one senior federal official with detailed knowledge of the ONSA, its mandate and activities. “It’s also the worst kept secret in town.”
The decision to close the ONSA adds to the growing turmoil surrounding several key S&T organizations. Last month, Industry Canada scrambled to replace Canadian Space Agency president Larry Boisvert, who abruptly resigned just nine months into a five-year term, choosing senior bureaucrat Guy Bujold as an interim leader (see page 5). And last week, another senior Industry Canada bureaucrat (Michael Binder) was tapped to head up the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission after the high-profile firing of Linda Keen, the commission’s embattled president.
Carty stepped into the role of NSA April 1/04 after 10 years as president of the National Research Council, where he was largely successful in turning around a demoralized organization and winning several new mandates. From the onset as NSA, Carty saw the need to build upon the investments being made in largely university-based research and establish credibility with all stakeholders. But he was also aware of the challenges of providing independent advice to government when situated within the bureaucracy.
“The NSA has to provide balanced, independent science advice which will be taken seriously by the government,” Carty said in a 2003 interview with RE$EARCH MONEY. “It is going to be a sensitive task to balance what government thinks it needs – what it wants to do – and the science advice coming from the broad community. They are not necessary synonymous.” (R$, December 22/03)
The role of the NSA was hamstrung from the beginning due to a miniscule budget, a vague mandate and the lack of a reporting mechanism to Cabinet. Several have criticized Carty for failing to negotiate a clear mandate before accepting the position. Indeed, Carty told RE$EARCH MONEY in early 2005 that he was seeking a clarification and strengthening of his mandate from Paul Martin, but nothing came of the attempt (R$, January 24/05).
“There are a lot of expectations being put on this office but without any mechanism for inputting policy advice to the highest levels, I’m not going to be very effective,” he said at the time.
Under the Liberal government, Carty and his office moved forward several key files including support for major science infrastructure, nanotechnology, international S&T and a new fund for federal laboratories modeled on the Canada Foundation for Innovation. But those efforts rarely resulted in concrete reports or action by the government and the NSA was unable to shake off its low profile and the impression that it wasn’t having an impact.
While housed within PCO, it was no secret that Carty had less than warm relations with then PCO clerk Alex Himmelfarb and relations apparently didn’t change with the appointment of Kevin Lynch under the Conservative government in March/06. In May of that year, Lynch announced that the NSA and several other small secretariats were being moved out of the PCO to other government bodies, with NSA landing at Industry Canada
“The big problem is that they (NSA) never had an impact on anything. It was created as a political initiative by the Liberals and Paul Martin because he had an interest,” says one observer of federal S&T policy. “Then he (Carty) ran into the bureaucracy and got pulled back into the chain of command.”
Carty isn’t alone among science advisors when experiencing difficulties interfacing with government. When US presidential science advisor Dr John Marburger was appointed in late 2001, it was without the added title of assistant to the president enjoyed by his predecessors. In addition, many of the Bush administration’s controversial science policy decisions (embryonic stem cells, climate change) had already been made, leaving Marburger to defend policies which he had no role in formulating. At least one Democratic candidate (Hillary Clinton) has pledged to restore the additional title to the science advisor’s position and restore direct reporting to the president.
The ONSA’s fall from political grace became baldly apparent last year with the release of the S&T Strategy, which contains an extensive section on S&T advice and a commitment to “revitalize” its external S&T advice. The Strategy is completely silent on the ONSA with the exception of a passing reference acknowledging that “the Strategy benefited from the advice of many individuals and organizations” including the NSA. ONSA executive director Kevin Fitzgibbons – one of several ONSA executives on secondment from other departments – left last summer to become director of the S&T division at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (R$, September 19/07).
The government’s intent to exclude the ONSA from its evolving policy framework was reinforced with the announcement of STIC and the appointment of its chair, Dr Howard Alper, and members (R$, June 18 & October 29/07).
“The people in the ONSA are top notch but the whole has been less than the sum of its parts,” says one S&T observer. “The office never commented on the S&T system or the structure and function of the system. It should have had a lot of independence but it failed to define an agenda and failed to capture the attention of politicians and the public.”