With the Harper government facing continued criticism from many quarters over its policies towards science, the opposition has announced it wants to put in place a parliamentary champion to better shield government researchers and their work from political misuse.
In a private member's bill to be tabled next week the NDP science and technology critic, Kennedy Stewart, calls for the establishment of a parliamentary science officer reporting not to the government nor to the Prime Minister's office, but to Parliament as a whole.
The role would provide lawmakers with background and analysis on science-related issues, serve as a watchdog over the government's use of scientific evidence and encourage evaluation and co-ordination of research expertise across federal agencies.
"It's not just advising the government on policy … it's defending science," said Dr. Stewart on Thursday at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Toronto.
In recent years, the federal government has riled research advocates. They say Ottawa has inhibited federal scientists from speaking about their work; shifted priorities toward research that is commercially driven rather than in the public's interest; and cut or reduced funding to key federal science facilities such as the Experimental Lakes Area.
"The culture of science [in Canada] is being poisoned," said Dr. Stewart, the member from Burnaby South who is on leave from his position as a professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Public Policy. "This is an effort to get things back on track."
The role envisioned in the NDP bill is based in part on a U.K. model and is similar in its independence to that of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. The seven-year, one-term appointment would also work in concert with other federal science advisory bodies, including the Science, Technology and Innovation Council – which provides confidential scientific advice to the government but not to Parliament – and the Council of Canadian Academies, which provides publicly accessible information related to science policy but does not make recommendations.
Like other private member's bills, the eight-page Parliamentary Science Officer Act would need support from government members to become law. Dr. Stewart acknowledged the political hurdle but added that recent protests across the country by researchers concerned about the stifling or misuse of science in government have created an impetus for Parliament to act.
"The key driver here is what the scientific community does."
Speaking to a room mainly filled with science policy professionals, Dr. Stewart drew applause for the idea but also skepticism about whether such an ambitious multi-faceted role could be realistically achieved or appropriately contained within one job.
"I would say it's very tricky," said Paul Dufour, adjunct professor and fellow at the University of Ottawa's Institute for Science, Society and Policy. "I would be more concerned to make sure that such an officer could do the first part of the job, which is to provide parliamentarians with briefs, analysis and non-partisan advice."
He added that once such a role was valued in Parliament, a broader role for the officer could evolve.
Dr. Stewart agreed that the description encompassed a wide mandate – intentionally so – as a starting point for addressing how scientific thinking can become more entrenched in the workings of Parliament. Although the officer would not have the power to direct government action, he added, it would shine a spotlight on cases where the government did not properly take science into account in decision making.
"Sometimes barking is a good as biting," Dr. Stewart said.
Later, Greg Rickford, the Minister of State for Science and Technology, addressed participants at the conference. He did not speak directly to the proposed bill but acknowledged Dr. Stewart and other members for contributing to a dialogue about science and technology in Parliament. The Conservative government is set to issue a revamped science strategy in the next two months, Mr. Rickford said, and was seeking input.
"The is the kind of collaboration we need," he said, speaking of the annual conference which brings together government, industry and academic expertise around issues relating to Canadian science policy.