A seat for science in the House of Commons: what is motion M-38?

Tuesday, May 25, 2021 - 08:56

Motion 38 (M-38) proposes to create a new Standing Committee for Science and Research. Here’s what that means, and what’s happening right now.

In the first session of the 43rd Parliament, the Honourable Member of Parliament (MP) Kirsty Duncan (LPC) put forward a motion as a private member, titled M-38, to create a new Standing Committee for Science and Research. Duncan has previously served as the Minister of Science and Sport, and is now the Deputy House Leader of the Government. As she stated earlier, this committee has the potential to “give Canada’s research community a permanent place to raise their issues in Ottawa.”

Here’s what it all means, and what’s happening right now. 

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May 27th Update:

M-38 has passed by a vote of 331-0! The motion received unanimous support from all parties, as well as the independent Members of Parliament (MP). This new committee will begin when the House resumes in September 2021. 

We are delighted to see strong support for this committee which offers a new channel of engagement for scientists and decision-makers. We look forward to working closely with stakeholders on all sides of this initiative to help bring it to life.

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Wait, what’s a standing committee?
MPs sit in the House of Commons to serve as representatives for their federal riding. Among other responsibilities, MPs participate in committees to examine complex matters in small groups, such as policies and programs, and to hear from Canadians and experts on issues of national concern. Standing committees are ten member-large permanent committees established by the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.

There are 24 standing committees right now. The ones most closely related to science include the Standing Committees for Environmental and Sustainable Development, Finance, Fisheries and Oceans, Health, Industry, Science and Technology, and Natural Resources. The party representation on each committee is proportional to the party standings in the House of Commons, with names of members submitted by party whips. Standing committee members can question witnesses, move motions, and vote.

To create a new standing committee, as M-38 is proposing to do, an amendment is needed to the Standing Order.

So, if M-38 passes, what will this committee do?
M-38 proposes an amendment to the Standing Order to create a new Standing Committee for Science and Research. It asks that:

“the House (i) recognize that science and research are of critical importance to all Canadians, including, but not limited to, improving the health of Canadians, improving the environment, driving innovation and economic growth, and improving the quality of life of Canadians, (ii) recognize that science and research are more important than ever, as the economic, environmental and social challenges we face are greater, (iii) affirm its commitment to science, research and evidence-informed decision-making.”

As per the motion text, this committee “shall include, among other matters, the review of and report on all matters relating to science and research, including any reports of the Chief Science Advisor, and any other matter which the House shall, from time to time, refer to the standing committee.” 

But this is all tentative: until the Standing Committee on Science and Research becomes a reality, we don’t yet know what it could do, or the extent of its mandate.

What’s happened with M-38 so far?
In February 2020, the motion was placed on notice (i.e. providing a heads-up to the members of the House of Commons), but was then reinstated in September 2020 (i.e. the second session of the 43rd Parliament), likely due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fast forward to 22 February 2021: M-38 was placed in order of precedence (i.e. a random draw was used to determine the order in which to debate private member motions). The motion was jointly seconded by two Green Party MPs: Elizabeth May on 22 April 2021, and Paul Manly on 23 April 2021. The first hour of debate took place on 27 April 2021. 

As per Duncan, the motion will likely “have its second hour of debate on May 25th with a vote in the House of Commons on May 26th.” We will continue to update this blog post, as new developments occur.

Update: The second hour of debate took place on 25 May 2021, and a vote was deferred to take place on 26 May 2021. All 331 MPs voted unanimously in support of M-38, across party lines. This is now recorded in the Journals: the official record of the decisions and other transactions of the House. This new Standing Committee on Science and Research will begin when the House resumes in September 2021.

What have MPs said so far about M-38?
While the debate around the motion has covered a wide range of issues, here are a few highlights that may be of interest to our community. 

  • This proposed committee can fill an existing gap: Despite various past House of Commons standing committees with either science or research in their titles, Duncan pointed out that as per the Library of Parliament, (i) only 12 substantive reports on science and research have been carried out in the past 54 years, and (ii) in the last Parliament, only two of 27 reports by the Industry, Science and Technology Committee were linked to science and research. Similarly, Elizabeth May (Green) asked why it was “so difficult to get non-scientists to understand how critical it is to listen to the advice of science experts.” Don Davies (NDP) noted two examples to illustrate how “dire” the situation is: that Canada’s COVID-19 pandemic response was “severely impaired by a lack of scientific capacity and literacy at the Public Health Agency of Canada” and a “lack of domestic research and biomanufacturing capacity has delayed COVID-19 vaccine access for Canadians.”
  • There is potential overlap with the existing standing committee on Industry, Science and Technology (INDU): Sébastien Lemire (Bloc Québécois) expressed support for the motion, but pointed out that issues of “science, research and development will always be matters that I will raise at the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology,” where he currently serves as vice-chair. Similarly, Marilyn Gladu (CPC) noted that science is currently “a sort of sub-subject” under the existing INDU committee, but because there are many issues to focus on, “if we start putting them in priority, science falls lower on the list.” This was also echoed by Mario Simard (Bloc Québécois) who noted that “the problem is that science has kind of gotten buried under economic interests” and that a new standing committee would “slightly free” up the existing INDU committee.
  • What issues this proposed committee could address: Kate Young (LPC) pointed out that this committee could rely on the Chief Science Advisor’s expertise more regularly, and navigate existing challenges, including the “so-called brain drain, early career research, stem cell research and the ongoing issue of women in research who are not taken seriously.” Lemire echoed this sentiment, stating that the committee “will provide a scientific platform for the chief science advisor and will enable parliamentarians to access the best advice from government scientists.” Similarly, William Amos (LPC) said this committee could provide a forum where “members from all parties and the public might benefit from the reflections of our scientific and research communities”, and that it was an opportunity to reaffirm a commitment to the “centrality of science and evidence in the context of Canada's legislative branch.”
    Richard Cannings (NDP) suggested that a “great first study” for the new committee could be to study the implementation of the Fundamental Science Review report, pointing out that there has been a “slow rollout”  and that a report would be “very illuminating.” The issue of scientific integrity was also referenced in Louise Charbonneau’s (Bloc Québécois) question, asking whether the need for independence in research is a priority for the current federal government.
  • Potential limitations of this proposed committee: Lemire pointed out that this proposed committee should not serve as a “pretext for interfering in scientific work,” nor “create a silo where research and science are isolated from the rest of society.” This was echoed by Simard, who said that “we must see a separation between politics and science”, and that there must be interaction with other steps, starting from “basic research to its application." Instead of a silo, Lemire proposed that “perhaps a science and research subcommittee that studies the scientific aspects and then reports to the Committee on Industry, Science and Technology with a broader vision of the applications and consequences would provide insight on that.” This proposal was also echoed by Simon-Pierre Savard-Tremblay (Bloc Québécois).
  • What else could be done to support science in Canada: Cannings stated that “what we really need is a truly independent parliamentary science officer, just as we have a Parliamentary Budget Officer.” This referred to former MP Kennedy Stewart’s Private Member’s Bill: Bill C-558 (Parliamentary Science Officer Act) — an issue that E4D has previously advocated for. This bill was introduced, and underwent a First Reading in the House of Commons on 3rd December 2013, but did not proceed any further.
  • A finer point on the process to amend Standing Orders: While Scott Reid (CPC) does support M-38, he pointed out that amendments to the Standing Orders have the potential to alter “the balance of power in the House”, and that all-party consent, rather than a simple majority vote, may be preferable. Reid noted that M-38 “does not alter power arrangements among the various players in the House.”

What does this all mean, and what’s next?
As a community, we should continue to follow the developments around M-38. This is an important time to reach out to your MP, and highlight that this motion will help keep science and evidence at the forefront of government decision-making. (Not sure how to engage with your MP? Find the steps in our toolkit.)

The new committee offers a unique opportunity for the Canadian science community to speak up on matters relating to science and research, and help shape the overall function and value of the Standing Committee for Science and Research.

 

 

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Farah Qaiser

Researcher

Farah Qaiser is a researcher and science communicator. In 2020, Farah completed a Master of Science degree at the University of Toronto, where she carried out DNA sequencing to better understand neurological disorders.