Science and evidence are at the core of sound public policy and democratic accountability. While scientific research is not the only input relevant to the policy-making process, political leaders are expected to consider — if not base their decisions upon — the best evidence available. And if Canadians, and through them Parliament, are to hold the government to account for its policies and ensure these are driven not solely by ideology, sentiment or politics, the public needs access to impartial information. On a whole range of policy challenges — be it environmental protection, food safety, health care, criminal justice, cybersecurity or transportation — a proper consideration and debate of the options available requires knowledge of the underlying facts.
For too many years in Ottawa scientific evidence has been ignored or stifled for political reasons. Restrictive new communication policies requiring public scientists to get approval from bureaucrats before speaking to the media about their research have prompted allegations of widespread “muzzling,” nationwide protests and an unprecedented investigation by the Information Commissioner. A recent survey of scientists and engineers in federal departments and agencies, conducted by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, found that 9 out of 10 federal scientists feel they are not allowed to speak freely without constraints about their research, and nearly half of federal scientists are aware of actual cases in which the release of information was suppressed or declined. In addition, recent budget cuts have served to undermine Canada’s research capacity. Since forming a majority in 2011, the federal government has cut over $1.1 billion from the global science and technology budget and eliminated 4,000 researchers from the civil service, according to the latest Statistics Canada figures.
These trends have not gone unnoticed by our peers abroad, tarnishing Canada’s reputation as a knowledge leader. The prestigious journal Nature boldly demanded in March 2012 that “it is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free,” with the New York Times arguing in September 2013 that nothing the Bush administration perpetrated against the US scientific community even “came close to what is being done in Canada.” Finally, a letter signed by 815 international scientists last October urges Prime Minister Harper to “remove excessive and burdensome restrictions and barriers to scientific communication…and restore government science funding.”
In our view, a contributing factor to this present decline was the elimination in 2008 of the Office of National Science Advisor (ONSA). Without a chief scientist at the centre of government — someone to ensure evidence always has a voice in the process — there is little to prevent the gradual erosion of scientific integrity.
It is important to note, however, that the ONSA — initially setup by the Liberal government of Paul Martin — was an imperfect institution from the start, in two key respects. First, because it was established by an order of cabinet and initially housed within the Privy Council Office, the position lacked independence 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, its resources kept inadequate and its office shuffled away to Industry Canada, depending on who was in power. Eventually, the Conservative government abolished the position. Second, the ONSA was given a limited mandate to advise and report only to the prime minister, not to Parliament as a whole. Thus, while it provided the executive with sound information and scientific advice, it never became a public resource parliamentarians could draw upon in holding cabinet accountable. A new, more comprehensive institution is needed to protect and promote scientific research in government.
For too many years in Ottawa scientific evidence has been ignored or stifled for political reasons.
Tabled in the House of Commons in December 2013, Bill C-558 — the Parliamentary Science Officer Act — seeks to create a new agent of Parliament tasked with serving the scientific needs of the legislature and having the same statutory independence as the auditor general. A champion for science in Ottawa, this position would better ensure the legislative process is informed by research and evidence, act as a watchdog of scientific integrity in federal departments and agencies, and promote the exchange of knowledge between scientists and the public. We discuss each of these points below.
First, most parliamentarians do not have formal training in the sciences or engineering, but expert knowledge in these disciplines is indispensable to public policy. At the same time, politicians are bombarded daily with science-related information, news stories and lobbying materials. How can MPs effectively scrutinize food safety regulations, debate Canada’s response to the threat of climate change or evaluate the potential risks of new health technologies without easy access to all the relevant facts and evidence? A parliamentary science officer would help with precisely this challenge by responding to requests from individual MPs or committees for technical and scientific information. Providing this information requires researching, assessing and synthesizing the current state of scientific evidence relevant to any bill or proposal before Parliament and providing it impartially and in a format accessible to nonexperts. To ensure its advice meets the highest scientific standards, any reports or briefing notes produced should be subject to a rigorous, external peer-review process. Our inspiration in this instance is the United Kingdom’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). Established in 1989, the POST is designed 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.
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The second part of a science officer’s mandate is to monitor, investigate and report on the state of scientific integrity in government. Our proposal is very much modelled on our current parliamentary budget officer, which has enhanced transparency and accountability in the use of public monies. In a recent piece in iPolitics entitled “Why Canada Needs a Science Watchdog,” Paul Dufour, former executive director of the 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.”
Under Bill C-558, the PSO would have the power to initiate studies and request information in regards 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). That being said, science is not the sole consideration in the policy-making 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, its mandate is to shine a spotlight on cases in which the government has disregarded, undermined or skewed the research available to it — ensuring that Parliament and Canadians are never kept in the dark.
Finally, a new parliamentary science officer can serve as a catalyst for knowledge exchange between scientists and the broader public. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, while it resides within a different system of government, has played a similar role in the United States. The challenge is to build partnerships and drive the importance of scientific research for Canada’s social and economic future. It is vital for an independent science officer to not only report to Parliament, but also communicate its work with Canadians — to raise awareness of science and technology issues and engender a culture of scientific excellence.
Since Bill C-558 was put forward in Parliament, consultations with the scientific community suggest the most common concern is not the mandate or scope of such an office, but instead who would be chosen to lead it. An independent agent who depoliticizes science could be of value to the democratic process but — as the argument goes — how can it be ensured he or she would be both qualified and impartial? To allay these fears, the legislation specifies the scientific qualifications required at the time of appointment, including a doctorate in a relevant discipline and a record of peer-reviewed publications. And, in order to prevent political patronage, consultations must be undertaken with every recognized party and the appointee needs to be approved by Parliament, as is the case with the auditor general.
Some critics suggest a PSO is unnecessary, as it would be redundant with existing organizations that provide scientific advice. Based out of Industry Canada, the Science, Technology, and Innovation Council provides confidential advice to cabinet on science and technology issues and produces regular reports measuring Canada’s research performance against international benchmarks. An independent organization, the Council of Canadian Academies, undertakes and publishes expert assessments of scientific evidence relevant to key areas of public policy. What is lacking, however, is an organization that is tasked with serving the scientific needs of Parliament and, along with being firmly independent from government, mandated to report on public science within federal departments and agencies. Thus, the responsibilities of a parliamentary science officer are distinct from, yet complementary to, existing science advisory bodies. And the costs of such an office, estimated at a few million dollars per year, are a pittance compared with the long-term value it would bring to the policy-making process.
As Canadians get ready to choose a new government this fall, political parties shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that evidence-based policy is fundamentally a nonpartisan issue and supported by voters of every stripe. Creating a parliamentary science officer, as proposed by Bill C-558, would go a long way to revitalize the role of evidence in our democracy.