Commander Spock, report to the PMO

The Trudeau government is announcing its new science advisor Tuesday, but scientists have a question: What’s the point?


 
CBS/Getty Images

CBS/Getty Images

On Tuesday Prime Minister Trudeau and his science minister Kirsty Duncan will announce the name of the government’s Chief Science Advisor. There’s considerable excitement in the research community over this appointment, which fulfills a 2015 Liberal campaign commitment, ticks off a point in Duncan’s November 2015 mandate letter, and closes a job opening the government posted eight months ago.

Without knowing the identity of the new science guru, it’s fair to assume the person named will be a scientist of formidable achievement, dedicated to public service. What’s surprising is how frequently I run into people with an interest in science policy—researchers, public servants, university administrators—who aren’t sure why the position needs to exist. It’ll be interesting to see how the government, and the new appointee, respond.

The point of the 2015 Liberal campaign promise was clearly to remind people that Stephen Harper had fired the previous science advisor, Arthur Carty, in 2008. What’s less often mentioned is that before Paul Martin created the post in 2004, the previous six prime ministers had managed to get by without one—and that when Carty’s post was abolished, informed advisors were as likely to note the “small budget and vague mandate” that the Martin government gave his office as to scold Harper for shutting it down.

READ: Innovative science research in Canada is dying a silent death

It’s also fair to assume the Trudeau government will give Science Advisor 2.0 a bigger budget—this government isn’t shy about spending—but the mandate will be interesting to watch. I really think the science advisor was imagined, in the first place, as nothing more than a totem of the government’s virtue. If the advisor’s actual working role was considered at all, it seems to have been as a real-life version of Star Trek‘s blue-shirted Mr. Spock, filing into the situation room off the Enterprise bridge to argue for logic against the outbursts of McCoy and Scotty. Already a question arises: what chance does a mere science officer have if the weird triplets from Planet Pollster, Ekos, Nanos and Ipsos, have other ideas?

Duncan’s mandate letter asks her to “create a Chief Science Officer mandated to ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.” Fun questions: What, is science not fully available to the public now? Are scientists not able to speak freely about their work? Does this government not already, today, consider scientific analyses when making decisions?

Those are pretty snotty questions, but they’re not only snotty questions. I’m actually pretty sure the answer to the third question, about considering scientific analyses, is “Yes, fairly often.” A veteran public servant reminded me recently that science is already deeply baked into thousands of government processes. Fisheries quotas aren’t, as a rule, set by whim: they take into account breeding patterns, ocean currents, climate, population distribution, and on and on. So for someone with a cubbyhole next to the accounting department to chirp up, three days before the fish quota announcement, and ask, “Hey, did they consider ocean currents?” is not overly helpful. Or necessary. Or, if one day some government actually does become hellbent on ignoring ocean currents for whatever reason, likely to tip the balance: it’s not as though this government is super-impressed by anything the Parliamentary Budget Officer says, after all.

READ: The PBO will suffer under the Trudeau government’s new rules

By the time Duncan posted the opening for a science advisor, more than a year after being asked—a poker player would say that’s a tell—the description had been modified, though not drastically. The three mandate-letter pillars are still there—science available to the public, scientists free to speak freely, analyses considered. We learn that the new officeholder will “report to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science.” Somewhere there’s a Dilbert cartoon about multiple reporting relationships. The advisor will also “focus on… how evidence is incorporated into government-wide decision-making” and “as an advisor… aim to provide… advice.” Well, thank God.

It’s not an unworkable model. Quebec has a chief scientist, Rémi Quirion, who has considerable clout built into his job: he co-leads each of the three provincial research granting councils and chairs the board of directors for each. That’s real influence, so much of it that he doesn’t need direct access to the premier’s ear. In Ottawa, a delicate question arises: If the new science advisor has the ability to decree change and privileged access to the PM, then why is there a science minister? Two delicate questions, actually, because the other one is: If the advisor can’t make change or sway the PM, then why is there a science advisor?

I follow a lot of scientists on Twitter and have had many conversations with researchers about the new advisor post, and there’s actually a lot of excitement about the new advisor post—but it’s for a reason the Trudeau government may not welcome.

In April, an expert report commissioned by Duncan called for substantial increases in federal funding for pure science research. Funding levels weren’t part of the mandate for the panel, under former University of Toronto president David Naylor, but he decided they were too important to ignore. Impressed by his cheek, almost the entire research community called on the federal government to embrace Naylor’s request. (You can find about a million tweets about this under the hashtag #SupportTheReport.) The Trudeau government’s silence on funding levels is seen, by many researchers, as evidence of Duncan’s weakness within the government. Many hope a new science advisor can succeed where she didn’t.

To be frank, I don’t think advocating for research funding levels should be any part of the new advisor’s job. But the very question returns us to the same see-saw dilemma: If an advisor can achieve policy ends the minister can’t, then why is there a minister? And if not, then why is there an advisor?

MORE ABOUT KIRSTY DUNCAN:


 

Commander Spock, report to the PMO

  1. Sigh.

  2. Science office sounds more realistic than an office of religious freedom to me, maybe it could teach a few of the cave dwellers that live in this country, we live in a world of reality and progression and not a world of ideology or fantasizing that we are waiting on some spiritual being to return and save us from some Armageddon.

    • Maybe Trudeau could hire Mark Hamill(alias Luke Skywalker)to handle the office of science, apparently old Luke threw out a bouquet to Trudeau at the UN last week, for wearing his fancy Chewbacca socks on the world stage. Could that be a sign to come?

    • You do know that all JT did was rename the dept to the office of Human Rights? And they still have a department called Inclusion and Religious Freedom. It was a shuffle.

      It seems you had big problems with Harper pandering to the evangelical community — but you have no criticism for Trudeau pandering to the Muslim or Sikh community? Come on — at least give fair criticism.

      • All parties are in the same cesspool of pandering to religious groups, i agree. I hate religion in any form, i don’t want my PM to flash any religious paraphernalia while he or she represents our country as head of state. i don’t care if a MP has any garb on, he or she is representing their district. I don’t want religion to have any influence on my country, that’s why the world is falling apart, is because of religion, or religious leaders. Just look at the mid east, religion has that place poison. I don’t even care if you pray, just make sure it’s not the HOCs.

        • I would love to rip that effing word god, right out of our anthem, i cringe, in this day and age having that effing word god in our anthem, i turn my ears off from it every time i hear the anthem, its disgusting, time to get rid of that word. This is my freedom of speech.

  3. Our govt has spent 150 years deliberately stifling our science and progress.

    We finally get a PM that is moving us forward into the new age, and we have complaints about it!

    • What do you base that opinion on?

      The last decade produced more Canadian Nobel Laureates (mind you 1 in literature) than at any time in our history. 5 (20%) of our 25 Nobel laureates in the last 10 years.

    • This was a study released in 2014. But it documents exactly opposite of your “deliberately stifling our science and progress” comment. I came across it when researching some patent information. If anything — it demonstrates that both the Feds and Provinces were giving too much $$$ to R&D investment.

      A study released this week by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy makes the case that Canadian tax breaks for research and development are already too generous.

      The study estimates that Canada provides a “subsidy rate” of more than 30 per cent for R&D expenditures – one of just five developed countries with “user rate” of more than 25 per cent.

      “Canada appears to be at risk of excessively subsidizing R&D investment,” the 44-page study concludes, based on a comparison to other member-countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

      “At these rates, the cost of intervention could easily exceed the benefits.”

      • Arthur B. McDonald, Physics, 2015
        Alice Munro, Literature, 2013
        Ralph M. Steinman, Physiology or Medicine, 2011
        Willard Boyle*, Physics, 2009
        Jack W. Szostak, born in the United Kingdom, Physiology or Medicine, 2009
        Robert Mundell, Economics, 1999
        Myron Scholes*, Economics, 1997
        William Vickrey*, Economics, 1996
        Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, Peace, 1995
        Bertram Brockhouse, Physics, 1994
        Michael Smith, born in the United Kingdom, Chemistry, 1993
        Rudolph A. Marcus*, Chemistry, 1992
        Richard E. Taylor, Physics, 1990
        Sidney Altman, Chemistry, 1989
        John Polanyi, born in Germany, Chemistry, 1986
        Henry Taube*, Chemistry, 1983
        David H. Hubel*, Physiology or Medicine, 1981
        Saul Bellow*, Literature, 1976
        Gerhard Herzberg, born in Germany, Chemistry, 1971
        Charles B. Huggins*, Physiology or Medicine, 1966
        Lester B. Pearson, Peace, 1957
        William Giauque*, Chemistry, 1949
        Frederick G. Banting, Physiology or Medicine, 1923
        John James Rickard Macleod, born in Scotland, Physiology or Medicine, 1923
        Ernest Rutherford*, born in New Zealand, Chemistry, 1908

        • In contrast……

          Corel, Cognos, Hummingbird, Mitel, Nortel, Radarsat, RIM, Telidon, Avro Arrow….

          • Thankee.

          • Now we have

            AI in Montreal

            Google City Toronto

            A PM that discusses quantum computing

            GG who is an astronaut

        • 5 in the last decade. What’s your point?
          Where’s the 150 years of anti-science you’re claiming?

          • Failed reading eh? Too bad.

  4. This whole issue highlights the extent to which science has become politicized. The previous Conservative government appeared to act in a way that suggested that scientists were just another political constituency. Politicising science resulted in scientists actively taking political stances against the Conservatives, which was like a self-fulfillment of the Conservatives position. Unfortunately, the creation of the science advisor position only appears to further this politicization of science.

    Back in the day, like when the Montreal protocol was signed in 1987, science seemed to much more apolitical. What can we do to take us back to the way things were?

    • We can’t go back….nor should we.

      Cool name btw.