A parliamentary science officer is needed to champion science in Ottawa, but the Liberals’ first budget will be the real test of their commitment to public science.

A key challenge for Kirsty Duncan, Canada’s new Minister of Science, will be to avoid the mistakes of the past as she moves to implement the Liberals’ ambitious election promises. In pledging to put evidence at the centre of government policy-making, the Minister will need to build new scientific institutions and give them real independence. But, most important, she must ensure new investments in public science are sufficient to help our researchers recover from Stephen Harper’s lost decade and propel our knowledge economy to new heights.

During the election campaign, the Liberals committed to appointing a new chief science officer, although the party provided scant details on its structure or mandate. Moving forward, we cannot lose sight of the lessons learned during Canada’s experience with the former Office of the National Science Advisor (ONSA), which lacked independence and reported only to cabinet. Most agree a different approach is needed, in what many now call the “science century.”

The very able and qualified Arthur Carty was selected to head ONSA, which was created by Paul Martin in 2004. However, its institutional framework proved to be largely inadequate. Established by an order of cabinet, rather than by a separate act of Parliament, it was initially housed within the Privy Council Office and lacked any formal distance from the government of the day. With no enabling legislation to guarantee its authority and mandate, its advice could be ignored, its access to decision-makers curtailed and its resources kept at a minimum. Nor was it afforded any protection, before being abruptly abolished by the Conservative government in 2008. In addition, ONSA was given a limited mandate to advise and report only to the prime minister, so it never became a public resource that parliamentarians could draw upon in crafting legislation and holding the government accountable.

In considering options for strengthening science advice in Canada, Minister Duncan must not simply try to recreate ONSA. The Liberals needs to learn from their past mistakes, consult with the scientific community and make real improvements before finalizing their proposal.

A new, more comprehensive institution is needed to protect and promote science and evidence in Ottawa. At a minimum, the office of Canada’s new science adviser should have three key features to ensure its effectiveness:

  1. It must operate independently of the federal government.
  2. It must report directly to and advise Parliament.
  3. Its mandate (and independence) must be protected by law so the office can withstand a change in government.

One proposal meeting all these criteria is my private member’s bill to create a parliamentary science officer (PSO). First put forward by the NDP in 2013, the Parliamentary Science Officer Act was retabled on February 4, 2016. Bill C-217 seeks to create a new agent of Parliament tasked with serving the scientific needs of our democracy and having the same statutory independence as the auditor general.

A champion for science in Ottawa, the PSO would have a mandate to better ensure the legislative process is informed by research and evidence, to serve as a watchdog of scientific integrity in federal departments and agencies, and to promote the exchange of knowledge between scientists, policy-makers and the public.

On the first point, most parliamentarians do not have formal training in the sciences, but expert knowledge in these disciplines is often essential for sound policy-making. At the same time, MPs are bombarded with science-related information, news stories and lobbying materials. Lack of easy access to relevant facts and evidence makes it difficult for MPs to, for example, effectively scrutinize food safety regulations, debate Canada’s response to the threat of climate change or evaluate the potential risks of new health technologies. A PSO would assist parliamentarians in carrying out their duties by responding to requests from individual MPs or committees for scientific information. Part of this challenge involves assessing and synthesizing the state of scientific evidence relevant to any bill or proposal before Parliament and providing impartial advice accessible to non-experts. When required, reports and briefing notes could be subjected to a rigorous, external peer-review process to ensure that they meet the highest scientific standards. A similar position exists in the United Kingdom. First established in 1989, the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology aims to support the use of research evidence in parliamentary debate and scrutiny with output that is apolitical and of value to members from all parties.

The second part of a science officer’s mandate is to monitor, investigate and report on the state of scientific integrity in government. This aspect is very much modelled on our current parliamentary budget officer position, which has enhanced transparency and accountability in the use of public monies. In a recent article in iPolitics entitled “Why Canada Needs a Science Watchdog,” Paul Dufour, former executive director of ONSA, and Scott Findlay, professor with the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, argue:

The state of Canada’s finances [is] important — but so is the state of Canada’s public interest science. Perhaps the time has come to create a well-resourced Parliamentary Science Officer (PSO), charged with providing independent analysis to Parliament on the state of Canada’s public interest science…This oversight function would serve to expose instances where scientific evidence has been misrepresented or ignored, and highlight where there is simply little scientific evidence on which to draw.

As a science watchdog, the PSO would have the power to initiate studies and request government data in regard to both policy for science (such as the implications of funding cuts or political interference in the research process) and science for policy (how decision-makers are using scientific evidence in a specific area).

Third, the parliamentary science officer would be a much-needed catalyst in the exchange of knowledge between scientists, policy-makers and the public. As a start, all of the PSO’s advice and reports should be made publicly available by default. And the office must not only report to Parliament but also strive to communicate its work to Canadians and promote a culture of scientific literacy. That being said, science is not the sole consideration in the policy process, and democratically elected governments have a mandate to make decisions based on a wide range of factors, including fiscal constraints, public opinion and equity, to name only a few. The appropriate role of a science adviser is not to advocate for a specific policy or comment on the wisdom of a particular course of action. Instead, the PSO’s mandate would be to shine a spotlight on cases in which the government has disregarded, undermined or skewed the research available to it and to ensure that Parliament and Canadians are never kept in the dark.

While such a position would revitalize the role evidence plays in our legislature, it is also important to recognize the scientific needs of the executive. The prime minister and cabinet may likely still benefit from confidential advice that more directly informs their closed-door decision-making processes. Perhaps there is also a need for a science body within government to help coordinate, oversee and implement science-based policy-making. One option would be to shift the existing Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) from Industry Canada to the Privy Council Office, where it could report directly to the prime minister and take on a more central role. Its mandate could be retooled and focused on supporting all ministers and their departments.

In addition to bringing in new officers and advisers, Minister Duncan must also dramatically overhaul government science communications. We have seen some positive early steps with federal researchers being allowed to speak more freely about their work with the media and the public. But our scientists need lasting protections — guaranteed by law — in order to turn the page on the Harper era once and for all. The new minister should draft comprehensive ethics legislation that unequivocally ensures the open communication of scientific research throughout government. Canada’s approach should follow the spirit, if not the letter, of the scientific integrity directives implemented by President Obama following years of muzzling by the Bush administration.

But the real test of the Liberals’ commitment to public science will come with their first budget, which will show whether they are ready to make new, significant investments for basic research. Federal funding for Canada’s three granting councils — the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research — has remained stagnant since 2006 and has barely kept up with the rate of inflation. Over the course of their majority mandate (2011-2015), the Conservatives slashed $1.2 billion in real terms from the federal science budget, according to the latest figures from Statistics Canada. Moreover, STIC’s recent State of the Nation 2014 report confirmed that our competitiveness in a global knowledge economy continues to fall: “Canada’s GERD intensity [gross domestic expenditures on R&D as a percent of GDP] declined from 1.96 percent in 2006 to 1.62 percent in 2013, and its global ranking fell from 16th to 24th out of 41 countries.”

These are troubling trends and why Minister Duncan must advocate at the cabinet table for Budget 2016 to include a significant, multi-year investment in the federal tri-councils. In my estimate the Minister should push for approximately $1.5 billion in new research funding over the next four years, with granting councils’ funding increases thereafter tied to an inflation escalator. This increase should be accompanied by new measures that strengthen the independence of Canada’s granting councils and ensure the majority of research funds are allocated by way of a competitive peer review process, with as few strings attached as possible. Along with restoring the role of evidence in the policy process, we need to renew our public investments in curiosity-driven research and provide our talented scientists with the resources and support they need to thrive.

With these commitments, we can build Canada’s intellectual infrastructure, which — now more than ever — is essential for discovery, innovation and long-term growth.

This article is part of the Science, Technology and Public Policy special feature.