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Ottawa seeks scientist to advise Trudeau, cabinet

Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan pose for a photograph on Nov. 26, 2015 in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Scientists who know how to give good advice, take note: The federal government is looking for someone like you.

On Monday, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan revealed the long-awaited job posting for a chief science adviser – a role, she said, that will involve providing the prime minister and cabinet with "access to independent scientific analysis" to aid their decision-making. Other key responsibilities include ensuring that research conducted by the federal government is available to Canadians and that federal scientists can speak freely about their work.

"We want someone with a strong understanding of the research landscape in Canada," Ms. Duncan said. She added that the role called for an experienced and respected scientist with knowledge of the public-policy arena.

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Federal Liberals pledged to appoint a chief science officer during last year's election campaign. The newly unveiled role resurrects a position that was cut by the previous Conservative government but with added emphasis on protecting scientific integrity within the public service. Ms. Duncan was tasked with defining and filling the job, a year-long process that has included consulting with stakeholders in the research community and looking at examples within other national governments.

Monday's posting reveals that Ms. Duncan's version of the role has shifted from "officer" to "adviser," an evolution that denotes the new position will have no direct role in allocating science funding but instead will be preoccupied with how science is disseminated and used by the federal government. The focus suggest the science adviser's effectiveness and longevity will depend strongly on how much the government makes use of the role.

"The issue of demand is always important for such a job," said Paul Dufour, a science policy analyst who was part of the team supporting the previous national science adviser until the role was dissolved in 2006. Ultimately, he said, it will come down to chemistry – in the non-scientific sense – between the new appointee and his or her political masters.

"That will make or break how this thing works," he said.

Mr. Dufour added that the science adviser would ideally be supported by an advisory body, to better draw on a range of expertise. The previous government sought advice from the Science Technology and Innovation Council, which currently reports to Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains. Ms. Duncan indicated the new role has a different mandate from the council, suggesting that the two entities will not be closely related in their functions.

Those awaiting Ms. Duncan's framing of what the science adviser will do have wondered how the role will be protected from political interference or from being eliminated altogether. Ms. Duncan said she is looking to legislative options to ensure the role's durability, "but we think it's important to do the search, to get the person in place, to see what's working well and what adjustments need to be made."

Supporters of academic research reacted positively to the job posting, but Margrit Eichler, president of Our Right to Know, a group which advocates for transparent use of public science, said she was disappointed to see that the position will report to the minister rather than to Parliament where it would be more independent and accessible to opposition members and to the public.

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"We're back to a situation where the people making the decisions are the ones hearing the advice and we don't know whether it's being followed or not," she said.

The position is open to all qualified applicants until Jan. 27. The federal appointments process means it will likely be some months before a scientist takes up the new role.

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