In the face of global threats, Canada’s science advisors can help us move from hindsight to foresight

By Paul Dufour

Senior Fellow, Institute for Science, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa

From the very beginning of the outbreak, our government took necessary measures to protect your health and safety. We’ve based our response on science and evidence. – Justin Trudeau, March 16, 2020

We express our conviction that current challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic need a strongly coordinated international approach, based on science and evidence, consistent with our democratic values, and utilizing the strengths of private enterprise. – G7 Leaders’ Statement, March 16, 2020

In troubling times, sound and timely science advice matters. It helps if you have trusted structures and institutions to rely on for such advice. Canada has been fortunate to have a public that largely trusts its knowledge and science actors. Indeed, within the government, the chief public health officer and chief science advisor have been working tirelessly to provide the best possible advice to the government, based on inputs from their respective networks and working groups. Other key organizations and experts have also been engaged and are providing valuable input.

Advice, of course, is just advice — it’s an art, not a science. Other factors weigh into the policy and political calculus, requiring a broad range of experts from all sectors. What makes science advice and its interdisciplinary, global approach special, however, is that researchers naturally adopt an over-the-horizon perspective. As C.P. Snow once argued, “Scientists have it within them to know what a future-directed society feels like, for science itself, in its human aspect, is just that.”

Take, for example, the large-scale foresight exercise of the UK’s Office of Science and Innovation, undertaken in 2006 and titled Infectious Diseases: Preparing for the Future. Looking 10-25 years ahead, this landmark study examined potential threats and offered visions of future detection, identification and monitoring systems. Framed within a climate change perspective, the report looked at human and zoonotic diseases in China and elsewhere, and noted that the risk of zoonotic infection showed no sign of diminishing and could increase in the future. An action plan was prepared that underscored early detection and the need for high-throughput screening of people at airports, as well as other forms of surveillance and quarantine.

Sir David King, the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor of the day, presented the final report at a conference sponsored by the Royal Society, having also outlined the key points at a meeting of G8 science advisers and ministers the previous year. It’s not clear what impact this major, forward-looking study actually had, nor what was finally implemented — but clearly, the authors recognized an emerging set of issues requiring action. Science communities and their advisory capacities can be put to very good use in horizon-scanning for opportunities as well as threats.

We have such a global threat today. We need leaders that can act on the evidence, using input from the sciences and the research community.

Science advice and expert networks are now being deployed across borders. Researchers from all fields are exchanging information and data. Principles of open science are being validated, as sharing of results is understood to be a critical piece to any solution. But to be effective, scientists and researchers need to demonstrate transparency and accountability. Only by using and communicating their expertise in an open and shared manner will they help cement the bond of trust that citizens place in reliable evidence and effective research. A Nature article on March 17 warned: “To defeat a pandemic in an interconnected world, countries need to provide full and transparent evidence to back up their decisions, and be willing to share that evidence so that they can defeat the virus together.”

This September in Montreal, under the auspices of the International Network for Government Science Advice, informed publics — political representatives, diplomats, government science advisors, and next-generation researchers — are slated to discuss the role for science advice to help shape forward-looking policy decisions in an increasingly complex world. Quebec’s Chief Scientist and Canada’s Chief Scientific Advisor are hosting the event and it is hoped that the timing of this conference will not only be opportune to address specific matters related to the current pandemic, but also to explore what can be done to tackle new challenges and address future threats. Our leaders should be listening.