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The Chief Science Officer’s Roles Within Government

March 29, 2016
By: 
Ted Hsu
Former MP Kingston & the Islands, Former Liberal Party of Canada Science critic, Member of the Board of Directors (Switch)

Canada needs science-informed decision making for better government, irrespective of the political stripe of the party in power. Therefore I believe that the Minister should strive to establish a Chief Science Officer (CSO) position which survives future changes in government. The CSO should have the capacity and the mandate to provide a clearly valuable service to any government of the day, that is the prime minister and cabinet, not only in policy development, but in communications and issues management, all the while remaining non-partisan and working in coordination with the Privy Council Office.

"You represented the scientists well." -- President Richard Nixon as he dismissed his science advisor.

The first point to make about the role of the CSO is one which has been repeated by many experts. The CSO should not be an advocate for scientists or science funding or policy for science and technology. These activities would weaken the credibility of the CSO within cabinet or the PCO and distract from providing value for the government of the day. I believe these activities are properly the domain of the science ministers (Kirsty Duncan and Navdeep Bains). Indeed much of the public role played by science advisors in other countries would more properly be assumed by our two science ministers.

The CSO should also avoid being a “science auditor” unless specifically mandated by cabinet. It is not there to be a political “cost centre”. Instead CSO should allow cabinet to know that they have the best-available science “on tap”.

Here are some detailed roles, which will also address the promises made in Prime Minister Trudeau’s election platform.

a. Build up a network of trusted, fair, and reputable science expertise that the CSO can call upon on short notice. This will be important to help the government manage hot issues or crises when there is a significant science component. The CSO should ensure, for the benefit of cabinet, that the government of the day is well ahead of the curve in the process of stakeholder consultation in the science community. New Zealand’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, believes that it is possible to identify issues involving “post-normal science” (think neonicotinoids, fracking, mandatory minimum sentences, cell phone towers, GMO foods) where preparatory work would be invaluable.

b. Serve as a link for cabinet and the PCO to the national and international scientific community, including science advisor offices in other countries and provinces, to advisory councils such as the Royal Society of Canada, Council of Canadian Academies or the Science Technology and Innovation Council, who might be mandated to perform studies of a longer-term or broader nature, to inform policy-making.

c. Help cabinet and senior decision makers in the public service assess and be able to communicate the correct level of uncertainty in the best-available science. This is the area where it is most important to have CSO staff who are experienced scientists.

d. Help cabinet communicate decisions where science is an important input and where clarity, simplicity and accuracy are important to gain public buy-in. Help cabinet in issues management where there is a significant science input by collecting reliable information in a timely manner, helping ministers understand the relevant science and win public confidence as a result. The CSO staff should have experience in communicating science.

e. Help identify gaps and build capacity in government to receive scientific information for decision making. Evaluate how science is used in decision making to make sure that it is indeed an input, and that science, with a proper understanding of uncertainty, is not filtered out before it reaches decision makers. The CSO could document how science-informed decision making leads to better decisions.

f. Create widely accepted criteria for being able to honestly claim that a decision has been informed by science. This is important because science is only one of many inputs to policy decisions, especially politically tough ones. A place to start would be the “checklist” that is referred to in the 1999 Science Advice for Government Effectiveness (SAGE) report.

g. Finally, in relation to specific points in the Science Minister’s mandate letter beyond providing science advice, the CSO could be a point of contact for federal government scientists with regards to concerns about their scientific integrity and scientific independence from political imperatives. In the past scientists were concerned about “muzzling”. In the future, challenges to scientific integrity could take other forms. Federal scientists and science journalists may use the CSO as a point of contact to express any concerns about the accessibility and preservation of federal government research.