Late in 2017, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan unveiled her government’s new vision for science, an ambitious plan that aims to strengthen Canadian science, support evidence-informed decision-making and foster a culture of curiosity in Canada. Bolstered by the recommendations of the recent Fundamental Science Review, Duncan has outlined a number of actions she plans to take to deliver on this vision, several of which have already been initiated. Among these, in direct support of evidence-informed policy, is the appointment of Dr. Mona Nemer as Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor (CSA), whose primary role will be to provide advice and evaluate scientific decisions and activities within the federal government.

In an age of “fake news” and a mounting public distrust of authorities, the implementation of a CSA is an important step in ensuring that decision-makers are well supported in using scientific evidence to inform their policies and decisions. However, it is only a first step. The CSA has also been tasked with investigating the potential for departmental chief science advisors (DSAs, in government usage), who would provide scientific support in various departments and agencies as well as support the CSA’s mandate. Other countries have successfully established or are establishing such a network of DSAs, which could serve as models for Canada.

We believe that the implementation of DSAs could support the building of a cross-Canada network of science advice and enhance scientific advice for departmental priorities and activities. Such a network could help bridge gaps and strengthen collaborations within the Canadian science community. The key task accompanying the creation of DSAs is to determine the functions and mandates of the positions within the Canadian science advice context.

How would a DSA function in Canada?

In our recent paper, we developed a model of federal DSAs that was inspired by the United Kingdom’s DSA network. As in the UK’s version, a DSA would be an expert selected based on their knowledge of a field of interest to a department or agency. This DSA would be appointed for a short, fixed term (three years, potentially renewable) and would be housed within the deputy minister’s office. Although the positions would be funded by government, DSAs would be able to retain their positions at their home institutions, which would help maintain their connections within their field. The major functions of the DSA would be to provide advice on scientific activities and policies, to evaluate government research and support government science opportunities within their departments and across government through the DSA network and to work with the CSA and the minister of science.

The implementation of departmental science advisors could support the building of a cross-Canada network of science advice and support departmental priorities and activities.

Like the CSA, the DSA would also be a public-facing representative for government science, although in this case for a department. A DSA would be expected to help foster outreach initiatives and science communication by their host department, to improve access to government science and to provide new opportunities for collaboration across governments, academia and the private sector. DSAs would also act as an access point for the public and academic community for interacting with federal scientists in specific departments.

How do DSAs differ from current federal science advice mechanisms?

There are a number of science advisory bodies and positions already within the federal government. Why add another? For one thing, some scientists remain very skeptical of government science and science policy, despite the recent developments. Providing a way for scientists to participate in the creation of science policy as nonpartisan advisors while retaining their positions outside government will help the scientific community understand and strengthen the decision-making process. Having the DSAs act as links between our scientific community and the government in this way could reduce tensions and misapprehensions surrounding important policy decisions.

Another difference is that the current holders of titles such as chief scientist or assistant deputy minister of science and technology are active in the management and government of their agencies and departments in addition to their advisory roles. In our model, we have avoided giving any managerial responsibility to the DSAs; they would stay in non-decision-making roles to avoid conflicts of mandate and to ensure complementarity of roles and responsibilities. Furthermore, the lack of managerial responsibilities would allow for the possibility that DSAs could work remotely or part-time, which could bring other benefits.

What makes this DSA model made-in-Canada?

Although DSAs have been implemented in other countries, including the UK and New Zealand, our proposed model was developed with a uniquely Canadian perspective and varies from these models in a number of key ways to better align with the federal government’s structure and priorities. For one, Canada is a large country, with vastly diverse geography, social components and scientific activities and priorities from coast to coast to coast. This is why we proposed that the DSAs could be posted away from the capital, especially in departments with significant presence in the regions. This change to the previous models would allow for regional experts at leading universities to participate in science advice. Furthermore, placing DSAs across the country could also lead to better opportunities to collaborate with provincial and territorial scientists and science advisors.

Another advantage to regional DSAs would be to increase access to varying expertise and backgrounds, which could enable enhanced diversity of science advice and promote cultural diversity and inclusivity within the federal government. With the possibility of part-time appointment, we expect that more early-career researchers would be interested in applying for these DSA positions. Furthermore, when DSAs are associated with multiple universities across Canada, campus communities would be more exposed to science advice and science policy; the interaction could help motivate more scientists and students to get engaged with government science, and could create stronger relationships between government science and academia.

Alongside the evidence-informed decision-making benefits that DSAs could provide, we expect that the DSA model could help support a number of the other priorities outlined in the Minister’s new vision for science. Bringing in a diverse network of advisors can enhance diversity, improve inclusivity and bring new, creative perspectives to the government science culture. Through new public-facing science communication, DSAs (along with the CSA) could improve connection to the Canadian public, sparking curiosity and connection to Canadian science and decision-making, and potentially improving science literacy in the Canadian public. As well, appointing DSAs could improve the government’s connection to other governments, academia and industry, which will help build a stronger culture of science in Canada.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Looker_Studio.

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Kimberly Girling
Kimberly Girling is the research and policy director of Evidence for Democracy, a nonprofit organization promoting science and the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making. She holds a PhD from the University of British Columbia.
Justin Marleau
Justin Marleau is a postdoctoral fellow in biology at McGill University. He worked for the federal government as an inaugural fellow of the Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellowship.

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