"A champion for science?" Potential roles for Ontario's future CSO

While we wait to hear more on about a Federal Chief Science Officer, Megan Dodd provides a guest blog post exploring the potential role for a Chief Science Officer in Ontario.

Ontario, it seems is following the federal government’s lead when it comes to science policy. On June 13, the Office of the Premier released a Backgrounder describing ministry changes that included the creation of a position of Chief Science Officer (CSO)  to ‘help lead the government’s efforts to advance both basic and applied science’. Given that this would be the first such position in Canada outside of Quebec, what could it look like? What would be its potential benefit to Ontarians and Canadians?  

A CSO may be responsible for liaising with sectors outside of government to communicate and advocate for the scientific community. The similar role of Chief Science Advisor (CSA) tend to perform more of a scientific advice role, whereby they inform policy and decision-making affecting all sectors, beyond science. Though they are traditionally distinct, the roles and descriptions of a CSA and CSO tend to overlap in practice. It is currently unclear what the federal or provincial CSO role will look like in this regard.

In regard to international experience, the EU had short-lived CSA position (2012-2014) that was replaced in 2015 with the Science Advice Mechanism – a panel of 7 scientific advisors that act independently and in the public interest. New Zealand recently appointed a CSA (2009), and the UK has appointed a CSA since 1964. There have been international efforts to establish best practices of science advising, especially through the International Network for Government Science Advice. Canada has had some configurations of a science adviser, including nationally from 2003-2008, and Quebec was the first province to institute the role of CSO in 2011. Quebec’s CSO has the primary goals of increasing the impact and competitiveness of the province’s research programs, and increasing knowledge mobilization and public scientific literacy, however they also advise the minister and government on matters of R&D policy.

Minister Duncan’s request for feedback on the creation of the federal CSO position has been met with several recommendations that emphasize the value of an advisory role at the national level. Assuming Minister Duncan follows this lead, and given the fact that the announcement by the Ontario government indicated the provincial CSO position will be created within the Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science, it may very well be that the provincial position will be a ‘true’ CSO, rather than a more-advisory focused CSA. If an  Ontario CSO will function foremost to advocate for policies that support a competitive research program tailored to the needs of Ontario citizens. What does this mean for Ontarians, and all Canadians?

Many of the sectors that stand to be most strongly affected by research programs (energy, environment and health for example) are under provincial jurisdiction. Though Ontario already has a Minister of Research, Innovation and Science, an additional role focused on delivering a concerted research plan that aligns directly with the needs of Ontario citizens would be valuable.

Given the varied landscape of energy sources across Canada, an Ontario CSO could work with the Minister of Research, Innovation and Science and Minister of Energy to develop a research program that addresses the specific needs of Ontarians. With renewable energy sources (wind, solar and bio-energy) generating just 3% of Ontario’s energy currently, but expected to rise to 13% by 2018, Ontario will rely on the implementation of new technology to meet the increasing demand for sustainable and clean energy programs (OCCCAE). Strategic research on how Ontario can combat and prepare for their future energy needs can only be informed by a customized research program, and this could be developed and led by an Ontario CSO.   

An Ontario CSO could also advocate for policies to uphold and sustain the international reputation of Ontario’s public health research system. Ensuring that the world-class health research institutes concentrated in southern Ontario are supported and continue to stay competitive in meeting new local and international challenges would be a priority, and would help to draw international experts and attention to Canadian research.  

With two percent of the world’s forests and one fifth of the world’s fresh water residing in Ontario, the province contains internationally valuable environmental resources. A research program that can inform policy makers to develop a tailored strategy to preserve and sustain these aspects of Ontario’s environment would be extremely valuable for Canadians, but also internationally. An advocate and overseer of such a research program could ensure knowledge is used to increase the sustainability of the strong forestry, agriculture and mineral production that are so important to Ontario’s economy.  

Given that 44% of Canada’s 2013 R&D expenditures occurred in Ontario, the province could benefit from an advocate for the concerted research policies that support the greater vision for a better Ontario. An Ontario CSO could also play an important role in facilitating provincial research strategies to participate in national and international goals, such as Canada’s Way Forward on Climate Change, which asks for provincial participation on carbon policies and clean energy technology programs. Having a champion for science in the form of a provincial CSO in the sectors where it can exert the strongest influence could complement both the provincial ministry and impending federal CSO, allowing a little more strategy and competitiveness into Canada’s largest R&D performer. The new role of Ontario CSO has positive implications not just for Ontarians, but for Canadians and Canadian research both at home and abroad.

Megan completed her PhD in Biomedical Engineering at McMaster University and currently works as a postdoc developing an injectable cell delivery system to treat ocular disease. Her passion for science policy, science communication, and science education has opened the door to a number of exciting experiences both in Canada and as far as Ethiopia.

 

Kathleen Walsh

Interim Executive Director

Kathleen Walsh brings a strong background in policy advocacy and campaigning to E4D as the organization’s Interim Executive Director. She has devoted her time to a number of non-profit organizations including the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Rideau Institute, Nobel Women’s Initiative, Equal Voice, and Famous 5 Ottawa.