Canadian researchers are raising concerns that the loss of a dedicated science minister signals a reduced voice for their agenda around the federal cabinet table.
Wednesday’s announcement of the new federal cabinet included the revelation that Kirsty Duncan, most recently the minister of science and sport, has been moved from that post to deputy house leader. The science portion of her portfolio has been folded into the responsibilities of Navdeep Bains, who will continue to lead the newly rebranded Ministry of Innovation, Science and Industry.
Operationally speaking, the change is not a big one. Ms. Duncan’s role has historically always been housed within the broader domain of the department of industry. But scientists quickly took to social media after the announcement to express their disappointment, asking not only why Ms. Duncan was being removed but why her role was being dissolved.
“People are wondering if the government thinks its science agenda is done,” said Marie Franquin, a doctoral student in neuroscience and co-president of Science and Policy Exchange, a student-led research-advocacy group. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”
Speaking with reporters after the announcement, Mr. Bains praised Ms. Duncan’s legacy and pushed back on the premise that the new arrangement means science has taken a back seat
“Science has been and will continue to be a priority for our government,” he said.
But Paul Dufour, an Ottawa-based science-policy veteran, pointed out that Mr. Bains will have plenty of other things on his plate, including delivering on five innovation superclusters that the government announced last year
“It’s not clear to me that science will get a lot of attention in his portfolio," Mr. Dufour said.
An early indication will come when Mr. Bains receives his mandate letter – a to-do list from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Science advocates hope the document will be made public as was done the first time Mr. Trudeau formed a cabinet in 2015.
Back then, scientists were elated when Mr. Trudeau handed the title of Minister of Science to Ms. Duncan, a PhD and former academic researcher. Ms. Duncan’s appointment carried symbolic weight for a government that pledged to embrace evidence-based decision-making.
While not a powerful player within cabinet, Ms. Duncan proved to be an ardent booster of Canada’s research community and engaged with its issues, including the muzzling of federal scientists by the former Harper government and the need to improve gender equity in the research ecosystem.
Among Ms. Duncan’s accomplishments was the appointment of a federal chief science adviser and the commissioning of a landmark review of Ottawa’s support for fundamental research, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor.
Scientists rallied around the 2017 review with a “support the report” campaign that helped spur a boost for academic research funding in the 2018 budget. But many of the report’s other recommendations, including those advocating for a more coherent federal research funding apparatus, have yet to be taken on board. With the elimination of Ms. Duncan’s ministerial role, it is unclear how much the Naylor report will be a driver of science policy going forward.
“I think the page has been turned on the Naylor report,” said Andre Albinati, managing principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group.
Mr. Albinati said he expected Mr. Bains would continue to push forward on the government’s science agenda. He added the role of science in government is now further bolstered by chief science adviser Mona Nemer and a growing network of departmental science advisers.
Dr. Nemer’s visibility within government has been growing since her appointment two years ago, while Ms. Duncan’s role was divided when Mr. Trudeau added sport to her portfolio in 2018. The change was another indication that creating a dedicated ministry of science may not have been a long-term objective of the Prime Minister’s Office but instead was viewed as a way to stabilize a policy area that was seen as marginalized under the Harper government.
Mehrdad Hariri, president of the Canadian Science Policy Centre who last week conducted a public interview with Dr. Nemer during an annual policy conference in Ottawa, cautioned that the chief science adviser’s role was best described as “science for policy,” meaning the use of science advice in decision-making. He added that the government still needed a separate role like that filled by Ms. Duncan and, now, Mr. Bains, to champion “policy for science,” meaning decisions that optimize Canada’s research enterprise.
Molly Shoichet, a University of Toronto researcher who was Ontario’s chief scientist until she was fired from the still-vacant role by Ontario Premier Doug Ford last year, called the loss of a dedicated federal minister of science a “lost opportunity."
However, she added, if Mr. Bains “can carve out attention to this sector, then it is not necessarily bad. … In an ideal world, science would be part of everyone’s portfolio.”
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