While Ottawa’s chief science advisor has yet to be named, the biggest question isn’t so much who will be named to the role, but what that person will do with the job.

Much of the impetus for the position’s appearance in the 2015 Liberal campaign platform was to reverse the Harper government’s crackdown on federal scientists. In the mandate described in the government’s job advertisement there is very broad latitude for interpreting the role: “The Chief Science Advisor will focus on how scientific information is disseminated and used by the federal government, and how evidence is incorporated into government-wide decision-making. This will include a particular emphasis on federal scientific research and activities.”

A suitable candidate, the ad continues, will have “knowledge of the challenges and opportunities facing evidence-based policy-making within government” and an “ability to provide scientific advice in support of policy decisions…effectively addressing the limits of science, the insufficiency of evidence, and appropriately framing uncertainties.”

In other words, the government expects its chief science advisor to be deeply familiar with knowledge at the intersection of policy, democracy and science. At the heart of these discussions is the burgeoning sphere of new technologies (climate engineering, genomics and artificial intelligence, to name just a few examples) and their ever-expanding yet unpredictable impact on individuals, societies and the environment. On the research side, there are concerns about whether science itself is facing a “‘crisis”’ of replicability, relevance and societal responsibility. A proliferating and splintering media environment, along with a loss of trust in experts, are also thought to be contributing to the “post-truth” skepticism about established science.

All of these issues were explored in a stellar lecture given in Ottawa in January by Peter Gluckman, the globally influential chief science advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand. He noted that the place and practice of science in liberal democracies is bound to be affected by wider societal trends. Acknowledging the centrality of democratic politics and values means recognizing “that science-derived knowledge is but one input into policy,” informing but not determining policy choices. On the other hand, producing scientific knowledge that is “trustworthy and in the interests of society” demands “greater transparency within science and its processes,” Gluckman said. He said there also needs to be greater participation by citizens in shaping the directions and process of research.

These are highly abstract notions, however, and working for the federal government means that finding jumping-off points for action could take a great deal of time. So here are two focused suggestions for Canada’s future chief science advisor and some quick wins.

Indigenous knowledge

As part of its overarching priority on reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has pledged to bring Indigenous knowledge into policy-making. In a January 2016 announcement of federal plans for reviewing pipelines and other contentious proposals, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr declared that the government’s “decisions will be based on science, traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples and other relevant evidence.” This statement was amplified in March 2016 during the prime minister’s visit to Washington, DC, in a joint statement by the United States and Canada on climate, energy and Arctic leadership:

Canada and the U.S. are committed to collaborating with Indigenous and Arctic governments, leaders, and communities to more broadly and respectfully include Indigenous science and traditional knowledge into decision-making, including in environmental assessments, resource management, and advancing our understanding of climate change and how best to manage its effects.

Increasingly, Indigenous knowledge of environmental topics is being sought by both government scientists and academic researchers. Within government, as the Toronto Star reported last year, Natural Resources Canada has awarded contracts to First Nations groups “to study traditional and cultural knowledge on climate and environmental change in the Northwest Territories.” And among academics using federal grants for research, combining science with Indigenous knowledge is becoming central to projects studying natural resources and the environment.

However, employing Indigenous knowledge together with science in research to inform policy decisions can only succeed if it is in tandem with the building of new partnerships and much administrative work. In a March 2017 lecture at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy, Dee Williams noted that “the encounter between Indigenous knowledge and science…[is] woven into the resource governance of places like Alaska and Canada, but it’s still far from being a standardized body of work.” Being systematic about establishing Indigenous knowledge as a resource for policy-making, he continued, requires going beyond “casual interactions of collaboration” toward “rigorous co-production that will stand up in a court of law whenever litigation seeks to challenge a particular set of decisions.”

A host of questions must be addressed in order to meet the level of rigour Williams envisions. For instance, under what conditions does Indigenous knowledge count as authoritative evidence on a par with scientific claims? Who counts as a bearer of Indigenous knowledge, and under what conditions may this knowledge be shared with scientists and policy-makers? How should facts be adjudicated, when the claims of Indigenous knowledge and science diverge?

Incorporating Indigenous knowledge into publicly funded research and policy-making also demands more administrative flexibility in how scientific research is funded, carried out and disseminated. Project timelines must enable scientists to allocate time for building trust and research agendas with Indigenous collaborators; research funding must cover unconventional budget items associated with those activities; arrangements for ownership of research data and authorship of publications must be considered. These would be highly worthwhile topics for Canada’s chief science advisor to address.

Democratic reform

The Minister of Democratic Institutions has been given a broad mandate by the Prime Minister “to strengthen the openness and fairness of Canada’s public institutions in order to restore Canadians’ trust and participation in our democratic processes.” Although five of the six priorities specified in Karina Gould’s mandate letter concern the electoral process, a healthy democracy concerns much more than elections. From the perspective of the chief science advisor, it must also include citizens’ perceptions of whether the government institutions bound up with science and science-informed policy-making are themselves transparent, open to participatory governance and beneficial to diverse groups of Canadians (as opposed to only elites).

In tackling these questions, more is at stake than realizing democratic ideals. In the post-truth, expert-skeptical, fragmented-media environment in which policy governance is now conducted, there is growing risk that evidence-informed policy-making will become alienated from the people it is intended to benefit — the people whose engagement is required for those policies to work. The negative results of this might include opposition to the goals that public policy seeks to advance, resistance to the methods chosen to pursue those goals, and lack of public support for the scientific research that’s needed for informed policy-making.

That said, determining optimal forms of citizen participation in science is very much in its infancy across democracies. As Gluckman noted in his lecture, “true engagement will be hard and challenging – what does it mean to include non-scientists in peer review and in science governance?” One school of thought, led by science and technology studies scholar Sheila Jasanoff, holds that the democratic inclusion of citizens in science demands extensive and ongoing public-led deliberations, under conditions in which all participants are equally able to shape the terms of discussion and have their concerns heard. Although such an extensive precondition of social justice may be unrealistic, there are other, more modest, ways to bring about public deliberation and representation in governance, which are being discussed and experimented on by European countries. Assessing those ideas and experiments in democracy, and bringing suitable ones to Canada, would be a worthy project for collaboration between Minister Gould and the chief science advisor.

On a symbolic level, both the use of Indigenous knowledge in science and a focus on democratic governance of science would be worthy first priorities for the chief science advisor. On a practical level, pursuing them would also buy time to consider what the core focus of the role within the federal government should be.

Photo: Shutterstock.com

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Natalie Brender
Natalie Brender is director of policy at the Canadian Public Health Association. Previously, she worked in science and research policy, as a freelance writer, political staffer and assistant professor of philosophy. X: @nataliebrender. Bluesky: @nataliebrender

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