Questions about a Parliamentary Science Officer

A couple of weeks ago, the European Union’s Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) was axed. It didn’t make headlines in Canada until about a week ago, which was surprising given the push by Kennedy Stewart and the NDP for a Parliamentary Science Officer (PSO) here in Canada.

I hadn’t thought very carefully about the PSO initiative – in the current anti-science climate, any science at the government level seems like a good idea to me. But a discussion about the loss of the EU CSA with a colleague who will remain anonymous (given his current government position!) made me think more carefully about how a PSO might function in Canada.

I wrote this post hoping to generate discussion around the PSO idea for Canada, as we’ve had surprisingly little public debate thus far. While most of us agree that evidence > ideology when making policy (thanks Evidence for Democracy for that one), is a PSO the best way to make scientific evidence a greater part of government decision making?

Back to the story of the EU’s CSA. She was tasked with “providing independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation as requested by the President [of the European Commission].” Much of the uproar over the loss of this position has centred around the idea that it was precipitated by anti-GMO interests like Greenpeace. Most commentators suggest that, to appease these activists, the incoming EU President decided not to renew the CSA position because the incumbent was overly critical of anti-GMO sentiment.

However, my colleague pointed me to the last few paragraphs of this BBC article, which suggest this may not be entirely the case. In fact, Greenpeace indicates that they are disappointed with the loss of the science advisor, though both they and another scientist raise three alternate concerns about the position.

  1. That it duplicates existing efforts to bring expert scientific advice to the government;
  2. That science is not automatically equated with integrity and good advice; and,
  3. That social science has been excluded from the science advisor’s perspective.

How does this apply in Canada?

Well let’s start at the top. The current Canadian government has taken pains to dismantle the apparatus of expert advice that could be counted on to provide information on key topics, include the National Round Table of Energy and the Environment, the National Science Advisor, and other positions (see John Dupuis’ blog for a comprehensive – if depressing – list). However, we still have the Council of Canadian Academies, which puts together reports on key scientific topics (most recently on Canadian science culture, but also on oceanography, shale gas extraction, and other topics), and the Royal Society of Canada, which releases reports on the humanities, sciences and arts on topics as diverse as marine biodiversity to Canada’s libraries and archives. Would a PSO duplicate the efforts of these organizations?

Additionally, the role of the civil service (decimated as it is under the current government) is to provide impartial advice – scientific and otherwise – to government. If the government isn’t listening to their own people, who’s to say they’ll listen to a PSO? Will a PSO actually fix the problem, or is it just a band-aid? Are there deeper problems that need fixing – in fact our very democracy itself?

On to the next point – the logical fallacy of equating scientists with integrity, impartiality, and good advice. Scientists are trained how to think: how to collect and analyse data objectively, and how to develop hypotheses and draw conclusions that are (largely) absent of personal bias. However, this doesn’t necessarily carry over into a code of conduct; we’re still human, after all. Consider the recent discussions of Richard Feynman’s less than stellar interactions with women, or Richard Dawkins making inappropriate and offensive comments. Brilliant minds, but not so brilliant on the integrity front. If you think that scientists are above politics, you haven’t been a fly on a wall in a university department lately. Politics extends in ripples out from the academy and into funding circles, conferences, media coverage, and more. We can’t assume that, just because you’re a scientist, you’ll be coolly impartial on all topics about which you have to provide advice to government.

Finally the third point: the lack of social science. The EU CSA was very vocal in her response to GMO opponents, describing opposition to GMOs as ‘utter madness.’ But that’s based purely on a scientific perspective: science shows that GMOs are no less biologically safe for human consumption than any other food. However, is she aware that many anti-GMO activists are against the social and economic implications of GMOs? That the development of GMOs and their widespread use has serious implications not only for environmental systems, but for the socioeconomics of agriculture itself? By moving beyond a purely scientific perspective, opposition to GMOs (and other science-related topics) may no longer be classified as utter madness (for a great article on this, see Jonathan Foley’s post at Ensia).

Here in Canada, we have multiple problems with evidence-thin decision making around social science issues, such as the loss of the long form census and the contempt of government for ‘committing sociology.’ Would a PSO incorporate social science issues, or only focus on science-related ones?

Ultimately, there is a difference between policy about science and policy that uses science: the former are more likely to benefit from largely scientific advice, while in the latter, scientific advice is more likely to compose one of a suite of inputs. There is also a fine line between providing evidence to support policy and expecting that all policy be based only on scientific evidence – which is where social science and humanities come in. If we have a PSO, do we also need a Parliamentary Humanities & Social Sciences Officer?

One thing I’m curious about is the level of support for a PSO within versus outside of the public service. Is it largely university and industry scientists, who aren’t part of the government’s decision-making apparatus but would like to have more input, who support the PSO? My colleague raised an interesting idea: would Canadian scientists be better served by developing a strong national lobby group to represent science on Parliament Hill? To push for the incorporation of science into more policy decisions, and to call the government to task for ignoring critical scientific issues and/or cutting scientific oversight?

There’s a lot I don’t know about science policy in Canada, and this discussion has brought up more questions for me than its answered. They represent topics the science community should discuss, however, because while we all agree that science is a vital part of a vibrant democracy in our country, how we utilize it to its best effect is still up for debate.

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3 thoughts on “Questions about a Parliamentary Science Officer

  1. Very well reasoned. Having moved from natural science to the social sciences, I have become aware of many of the points you made

  2. Great piece, Sarah and worthy of a discussion. Canada’s national science adviser, the highly respected Dr. Arthur J. Carty (https://uwaterloo.ca/science/about/deans-advisory-council/dr-arthur-j-carty) was the first one to serve in that position (’04-’08) when the position was deemed unnecessary by Prime Minister Harper. Because the position existed so briefly, we can’t really evaluate its effect for our country’s ‘knowledge policy’. I use the word ‘knowledge’ rather than ‘science’, because in the English language, the word ‘science’ is limited to the hard sciences, earth, ocean, atmospheric and life sciences and psychology. Other fields of knowledge are labeled as ‘humanities’ or ‘arts’. This isn’t the case in every language. In Dutch and German, for example, the terms ‘wetenschap’ and ‘wissenschaft’ refer to all fields of knowledge, not excluding humanities or arts and that notion means that those countries don’t restrict ‘science advice’ to only the ‘hard’ fields. A different mindset altogether

    In the UK, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser’s (GCSA) role is somewhat limited to Science and Technology: The GCSA (currently Sir Mark Walport (https://www.gov.uk/government/people/mark-walport) is responsible for:
    -providing scientific advice to the Prime Minister and members of Cabinet
    -advising the government on aspects of policy on science and technology
    -ensuring and improving the quality and use of scientific evidence and advice in government
    -leading the science and engineering profession within the Civil Service
    The GCSA heads the Council for Science and Technology (CST), which advises the Prime Minister on science and technology policy issues which cut across the responsibilities of government departments (that latter bit is very important in my view, because theoretically it sets the office aside from narrow-scoped ‘technology only’ views, such as the one that the EU science adviser succumbed to).

    In the United States, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy was established by law in 1976 with a broad mandate to advise the President and others within the Executive Office of the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs.

    Our own Council of Canadian Academies is also fairly new, 10 years next year. It exists because of a 30 million dollar endowment from the previous government of Prime Minister Paul Martin and it reports to and resorts under the Minister of Industry. The endowment (for 10 years…..) obliges them to annually formulate 5 advisory reports at the request of government. In addition they can do acquisition for outside-financed reports. So there are lots of strings attached; despite those restrictions, their products have been excellent, but who knows what will happen next year. There is no ‘Act of the Council of Canadian Academies’ so as far as I’m concerned, its position isn’t entirely secure.

    The Royal Society is Canada’s National Academy and thus has a different function: their objective to promote learning in all knowledge fields. Science Advice is not their mandate, even if they sometimes go there.

    I believe that a National Science Advisory Office is a no-brainer, provided the position is legally set up so that the office can be truly independent without having to fear for getting shut down. Such an office, headed by an eminent scientist, is an essential tool to prevent ideological and intellectually light-weight politicians from going off the deep end, as we have seen in Canada in the last nearly 10 years.

  3. Pingback: Fighting the War on Science (Funding) | Watershed Moments: Thoughts from the Hydrosphere

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