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Federal science minister Kirsty Duncan described her plans to create a chief science officer for Canada during a question and answer session with Mehrdad Hariri, president of the Canadian Science Policy Centre, at a conference in Ottawa last Thursday. (CSPC, Capphotographic)
Federal science minister Kirsty Duncan described her plans to create a chief science officer for Canada during a question and answer session with Mehrdad Hariri, president of the Canadian Science Policy Centre, at a conference in Ottawa last Thursday. (CSPC, Capphotographic)

Federal Politics

Ottawa prepares to launch search for chief science officer Add to ...

More than a year after taking office, the Trudeau government is inching closer to making good on its campaign promise to create a chief science officer for Canada. But the precise nature of the job remains unclear, including how its holder will relate to his or her political masters or be protected from them if the government is indifferent or antagonistic to scientific advice and recommendations.

“I’m hoping within a few weeks we’ll launch a search,” Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan said after speaking to a conference of science policy experts in Ottawa last Thursday. “We will put out the call to all Canadians.”

Ms. Duncan was tasked with defining and filling the role of chief science officer when she was appointed to cabinet in November, 2015.

Since then, there has been a growing restlessness among those waiting for some sign of what the job will entail, but also continued support for designating a role that ensures there is scientific input into decision making at a senior level.

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One year later, the call for a chief scientist who can interact with the federal government at a senior level has not diminished.

“I think it’s a preoccupation of many in the community,” said Mehrdad Hariri, president of the Canadian Science Policy Centre and organizer of the annual conference which has grown over eight years to become a key public forum for discussions of how science relates to government.

The role is not just a matter of “adding to the bureaucracy,” he said. “It’s answering a need – because our government routinely has to deal with a range of highly complex scientific issues that have a huge impact on higher-level policy making, economic strategy and public well-being.”

Ms. Duncan said she and her staff have now considered more than 80 detailed submissions on how to structure the position and they have looked at similar roles in the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Israel. In some cases, the job is that of providing high-level advice on science-related matters to political leaders. In others, such as that of Quebec’s provincial government, the science officer has an executive function in overseeing funding to researchers.

As to what form the position will take at the federal level in Canada, Ms. Duncan is not yet prepared to say. With her consultations long completed, her apparent holding pattern suggests that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to sign off on the model she favours.

But an equally pressing question is how Ms. Duncan intends to create a position that can survive beyond the current government. “I want to ensure it has permanence, it has durability and that we change the culture,” she said.

This may prove a challenge, based on recent history. In 2004, then-prime minister Paul Martin appointed chemist and former National Research Council president Arthur Carty as Canada’s first “national science adviser.” At first, Dr. Carty’s position was part of the Privy Council Office, the highest level of the public service advising the federal government. After Stephen Harper took over as prime minister in 2006, Dr. Carty’s role was downgraded and relocated to Industry Canada. In 2008, it was cut entirely.

Instead, Mr. Harper sometimes sought advice from the Science Technology and Innovation Council, a body his government created and whose recommendations were never made public. Following last year’s change in government the role of the council remains ambiguous.

Paul Dufour, a science policy consultant who was part of Dr. Carty’s team, said a weakness of the role was that it was not enshrined in legislation. “It was the whim of the prime minister at the time and therefore it was easy to eliminate it.”

He noted that in some of the countries Ms. Duncan has looked at, the role of a science officer or adviser has been anchored with the legislative equivalent of “nine inch nails” to make it harder for politicians to remove.

This is precisely what is called for in an e-petition launched last June by Margrit Eichler, who heads the advocacy group Our Right to Know. The e-petition garnered more than 1,500 signatures before it closed on Oct. 12, more than enough to require Ms. Duncan to respond by later this month.

Sources within government suggest there are no plans to draft legislation that would make the science officer role a permanent fixture of government – at least in the short term.

Federal NDP science critic Kennedy Stewart, who sponsored the e-petition, said he would prefer to see a federal science officer with the same level of independence as Canada’s Auditor-General, who reports directly to Parliament rather than to the government.

“What I think the Liberals will do is hire someone they know to advise cabinet from behind closed doors. This would be a great shame and the government will have missed a chance to enhance the public use of science,” Mr. Stewart said.

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