Chief Science Advisor

Les faits

On December 5, 2016, the Canadian federal government announced a new position within the Ministry of Science: Chief Science Advisor. The Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, announced that the primary goal of this position is to ensure that scientific evidence is well incorporated into government decision- and policy-making. This reinstates a position that was cut by the Harper government in 2008, but does not significantly alter the basis of this position.


Background

As part of its overall downgrading of the role of public science, the Harper government closed the Office of the Science Advisor when its first and only incumbent, Arthur Carty, resigned in 2008. Two years earlier, the level of importance of the Office had been lowered when the adviser's responsibilities were reassigned from reporting to the Prime Minister to reporting to the Industry Minister.

The Liberals has promised to reverse the war on science and to reinstate the Office of the Science Advisor. The mandate letter of the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan included that she "Create a Chief Science Officer mandated to ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions."

Progress, but not perfect

While it is progress to have a Chief Science Advisor position, the current position retains some of the weaknesses of the old one. Since the appointment is made through a Minister, the position could easily be abolished again, as happened under the Harper government. Kennedy Stewart, the NDP Critic for Science, had sponsored an e-petition that the position be established through an act of legislation, which would have required another act of legislation to discontinue the office, thus ensuring more independence.

The job ad states that the Advisor "will be responsible for providing scientific advice to the Prime Minister, the Minister of Science and members of Cabinet. This individual will also advise on how to ensure that government science is open to the public, that federal scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that science is effectively communicated across government. The office will be supported by a team of scientists and policy experts."

While it is promising that the mandate of the Office includes the task of overseeing that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, it would have been preferable if the Officer was charged with providing information and advice to Parliament, much like the Auditor General, rather than only to the government. In that case, the opposition parties would have received the same information about the state of public science as the government.

Relevant Dates:

2006: The Harper government downgrades the Office of the Science Advisor.

2008: The Harper government abolishes the Office of the Science Advisor.

2015: The Liberal government publishes the Letter of Mandate of the Science Minister which includes establishing a Chief Science Officer.

2016: Open recruitment for the Chief Science Advisor position.

2017: January 27 was the deadline for submitting applications for the position.

Emploi ou fonction

The Chief Science Advisor "will be responsible for providing scientific advice to the Prime Minister, the Minister of Science and members of Cabinet. This individual will also advise on how to ensure that government science is open to the public, that federal scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that science is effectively communicated across government. The office will be supported by a team of scientists and policy experts."

Portée et conséquences

Transparency: The Officer is responsible only to the government, not to Parliament. Transparency is therefore not ensured.

 

Date Published: February 20, 2017