Science Advice: Cultivating the necessary functions in Canada

This is a guest post by Heather Douglas, the Waterloo Chair in Science and Society in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo.

This is a guest post by Heather Douglas, the Waterloo Chair in Science and Society in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo.

In the last week of August, science advisors from around the world converged in Auckland, New Zealand, to discuss how to provide science advice effectively and legitimately.  Science advisors acknowledged the limits of science advice—that science cannot determine policy choices, that elected officials must make the choices for which they are accountable to the public, that scientists should not attempt to supplant policy-makers. Nevertheless, policy choices should be informed by the best available science (both natural and social science) if policy is to be effective and relevant in the 21st century.  The problem is:  How to get this done?

Over the course of the two days of discussion, it was clear both that each country had to find its own path but also that some basic parameters were important for science advising (Additional general lessons can be found here).  Effective science advice requires a good science advising system, a system with multiple parts serving different important roles.  The roles served different but crucial functions, including:

Informal advice provider:  Informal advice is advice given in the thick of policy discussions.  To do this job, an advisor has to be among the trusted insiders of elected officials and privy to their ideas as they form.  In this role, the science advisor can nudge the elected officials away from ideas that aren’t likely to work and towards ideas that have a better chance of success.  The success of informal advice is extremely difficult to track, but nevertheless very important for steering an agenda.  There must be a trust relationship between the advisor and the advisee for informal advice to work.

Formal advice provider:  Formal advice, in contrast, is developed over weeks or months, a result of a thorough evidential review, written carefully, often  (although not necessarily) in response to a request and is usually the work of groups of scientists.  Formal advice seeks to bring together the complex expertise needed to address the evidence on a given topic, usually requiring a range of disciplines and experiences.  Formal advice is often vetted further by peer review of the report before being released to policy-makers.  Such advice can (but need not) detail possible policy options.  What is important in democratic societies is that such formal written advice, whether produced by independent bodies or by public service scientists, be available to the public as well as policy-makers.  Policy-makers need not take the advice, but they should explain why to a public that can access the advice.

Science lobbyist:  Some voice is needed in government for the interests of scientists.  The scientific community of many countries is a substantial sector with deep interests in how public funds for science are distributed and other policies relevant to how science gets done.  There is a clear political interest to be represented.  What was emphasized in Auckland was that the science advisor who gives informal advice should NOT be expected to serve as the chief lobbyist for science, despite their proximity to politicians.  To put the science advisor in such a position was to make their position untenable—they would not be able to maintain the trust of those they needed to advise, if they were also expected to be the voice of the needs of the scientific community in government.

In addition to these three basic functions, science advisory systems also needed to grapple with the challenges of science communication, science advice in times of crisis (see the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), and global cooperation on scientific issues (such as through ICSU or TWAS).  And finally, an ongoing theme of the conference was how to address and improve our science culture.  Without a robust science culture, both the importance of science advice and how to engage with scientific issues will be lost on the citizens which science seeks to serve.

In the same week, the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) released their report on the state of Canada’s science culture.  There is a rich account of how Canadians interact with science, but explicitly excluded from the purview of the report is how the federal government interacts with science.  And it is here that Canada shows its greatest weakness.

In light of the three important functions of science advice, at the federal level, Canada is in sorry shape.  There is no chief science advisor nor any other science advisor inside the PM’s circle to provide informal science advice.  For formal advice, there is the CCA, but it is in a precarious position, only five years old and not sufficiently endowed to feel secure enough to “speak truth to power” when needed.  And there is no organization that speaks for scientists in Ottawa, serving the lobbying function.  Each discipline has their own organization, but there is no general one for science as a whole, as we find in the US (AAAS) or the UK (BSA).

In addition, the role of the public service in providing an ongoing stream of formal science advice is opaque, as it is unclear what information from the branches of the public service filter up, and there are increasing reports of suppression of particular unwelcome information from the top down.  At the very least, all this opacity in the scientific sector of the public service is unhealthy for the Canadian democratic system, as the public has little access to information it might use to assess the efficacy of policy decisions. 

Indeed, it seems that the current government’s culture of science is to see science as a tool to be used to support particular decisions, and to undermine any science to the contrary.  In Auckland, this use of science to support a pre-determined conclusion was roundly criticized as both bad science and bad policy.  A crucial part of a science advising system and a science culture is an openness to where the evidence leads, rather than driving towards a pre-determined end.  While one can expect short term political gains from such abuses of science, it does not serve the country’s long term interests.

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