Some thoughts on the NDP’s proposed Independent Science Officer

During the Canadian Science Policy Conference on Thursday, NDP Science Critic Kennedy Stewart announced that he would table a Private Member’s Bill in the House of Commons, calling for the creation of an Independent Science Officer to “provide science-based advice to members of Parliament and to vet federal science and technology policies.” According to CBC News, this officer’s mandate would include:

  • Assessing the state of scientific evidence relevant to any proposal or bill before Parliament;
  • Answering requests from committees and individual members for unbiased scientific information;
  • Conducting independent analysis of federal science and technology policy;
  • Raising awareness of scientific issues across government and among Canadians;
  • Encouraging coordination between departments and agencies conducting scientific research.

It is unclear whether an NDP government would place this science officer in lieu of the current Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC), created by the current Conservative government in 2007 to replace the former National Science Advisor position. The STIC, which reports to the Minister of Industry, is a council of 17 members, of which 3 are scientists (Chair Howard Alper, Arvind Gupta, and Molly Shoichet), 7 are executives (Sophie Forest, George Gosbee, Maureen Kempston Darkes, Terence Matthews, Simon Pimstone, Annette Verschuren, and Rob Wildeboer), 3 are government administrators (Simon Kennedy, John Knubley, and Glenda Yeates) and 4 are university leaders (David Agnew, Amit Chakma, Heather Munroe-Blum, and Indira Samarasekera). The council is mandated to “provide the Government of Canada with evidence-based science and technology advice on issues critical to Canada’s economic development and Canadians’ social well-being”. STIC produces regular national reports that measure Canada’s science and technology performance against international standards of excellence.

This council has an overarching interest in business innovation and knowledge development, as indicated in STIC’s latest State of the Nation 2012 report. It is clear that the Conservative government’s science mandate is very industry-friendly; among many changes during the past seven years, the government recently implemented sweeping changes to the National Research Council, shifting its mandate from research to being a “one-stop shop” for Canadian business needing scientific expertise. At that time, I wrote a post pointing out that while the changes had some merit, the pendulum swung too far towards the business sector:

Commercial innovation in science and technology should be a two-way road – certainly NRC researchers have come up with discoveries that have enormous economic potential, and they will need business experience and capital to help bring these ideas to market. Some researchers may have zero interest in embarking on a business venture, but they should be open to selling market rights to others who see an opportunity to bring it to the marketplace. […] It is often the people on the front lines, doing the R&D work, who get the bright ideas and develop them long before the business world ever becomes aware of its potential. That is knowledge that must be harnessed: for the benefit of science, for the benefit of our society, and for the benefit of our economy.

An important step to restoring the rightful place of science in our government would be to move STIC away from the purview of Industry Canada. While industry does have an important role in science, particularly at a time when so many highly-educated Canadian scientists are unemployed or underemployed, it is crucial that scientists know that their expert voices are heard loudly, instead of being faint background noise among industry concerns. At the very least, scientists should make up the majority of the STIC. Ideally, the mandates of offering science advice to Parliament and bringing together scientists and industry in innovation would be best served with two separate councils, the former reporting directly to a Minister of Science and Technology, the latter reporting to the Minister of Industry, with some cross-pollination among the two groups.

As for Kennedy Stewart’s proposal, I want to know that he would not swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. Publicly-funded basic research in universities and public research institutions such as National Research Council must be maintained, but it would be foolish to cast aside the voice of businesses that also foster a significant portion of the innovation in this country.

I am skeptical that a parliamentary science officer can really be independent and unbiased, particularly when that person is appointed by the House of Commons (read: the party in power). While the idea of a science czar who can champion science while being available to all members of Parliament sounds like a good idea, let us not forget that every party has its specific science priorities – yes, even the Conservatives – and politicians have an uncanny ability to reject an “unbiased” expert opinion to suit a contradictory ideology. Even the party that proclaims itself as the “party of science” has been shown to have some unscientific positions. In a situation where scientific opinion and party policy are in conflict, which one will win? We all know the answer, regardless of the party in power. Would the parliamentary science officer turn into essentially a non-voting member of Cabinet?

I would recommend that Kennedy Stewart and the NDP consider a middle ground between his proposed Independent Science Officer and the current STIC scheme. Instead of a single person tasked to assess the entire breadth of science for Parliament, consider a council of scientists, representing diverse fields, interests and backgrounds, providing Parliament with an abundance of science expertise across all fields. This would be a significant step to ensuring that the voice of all Canadian scientists is heard in Parliament.

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One Comment

  1. Comment by Chad Atkins:

    I had a similar thought, Marc. Appointing just a single individual to bear the weight of the officer’s mandate could result in more controversy. Increasing the scientists on the STIC, as you suggested, gives a slightly bigger voice to the fundamental science community – something that is sorely needed. The only thing that is certain is the current situation requires change.

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