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Does Canada need a Chief Science Officer?

Chief Science Officer
Chief Science Officer
Liberal MPs Marc Garneau, Ted Hsu, and Kirsty Duncan in Ottawa today.

The Liberal Party today called for the Harper government to stop the “muzzling” of scientists. A press conference this morning in Ottawa was held by Liberal MPs Ted Hsu, Marc Garneau and Kirsty Duncan, who claimed cuts to science have jeopardized Canada’s place on the world stage.

“We’re here to reaffirm The Liberal Party’s commitment to making policy based on evidence,” said Hsu. “We have heard from scientists and people across Canada who have experienced Mr. Harper’s suppression of science and muzzling of scientists and they are deeply troubled by it.”

The Liberals say they will create a position called “Chief Science Officer”, a person who will report to the Prime Minister. The sentiment was echoed by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who took to Twitter with the message.

Late last year, the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists sent an open letter to the Canadian government that was signed by more than 800 scientists from 32 countries.

“Canada’s leadership in basic research, environmental, health and other public science is in jeopardy,” the letter says. “We urge you to restore government science funding and the freedom and opportunities to communicate these findings internationally.”

A 2013 survey commissioned by The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada found that muzzling of federal scientists was widespread, with hundreds reporting they had been prevented from responding to the media or asked to alter or exclude technical information from government documents.

trudeau

With 145 days until the Canadian federal election, the motion from the Liberal party will without doubt be bashed, nit-picked, disparaged and blindly supported by some party faithful. Others will point out that the sentiment is hollow as long as the Liberals continue to support Bill C-51.

But does creating the position of Chief Science Officer make sense for Canada? What would happen if we simply hired one tomorrow?

The role is not without precedent on the world stage. Until recently, Ireland and the Czech Republic had chief scientists, and both the U.K and Australia still do. In the U.K., Mark Walport is the country’s dedicated Chief Scientific Adviser, in 2011, Ian Chubb became the seventh Chief Scientist of Australia.

Journalist Arran Frood explained the reasoning behind the creation of such a role.

“The rationale for having a CSA is simple in theory: a large proportion of politicians across Europe have backgrounds in law, linguistics or the arts. In some countries, studying classics of Roman and Greek mythology is deemed the most suitable qualification for running a country. One would think key scientific advisers would be needed to rise above the politics and stick to the facts,” he said.

The danger that many will be quick to point out is that the science boss could fast become chief-egghead-in-corner, a role politicians would pay lip service to, but not actually consult with serious intent. But Walport says that has not been the case in the U.K.

He says he is “impressed by the fact that the politicians I work with do take the science seriously, and they expect to be told the science as it is known. Science feeds into policy, and policy doesn’t alter science – that would be the wrong way round.”

Australia’s embrace of the role may be even more illustrative to Canada, as the country’s resource heavy economy is currently struggling in a way that calls to mind Canada’s oil sands in the days and months following a huge price correction.

In March, Chubb produced a controversial report that said “hard sciences” contribute $145 billion each year to Australia’s economy, or 11% of all economic activity.

“For the first time we now have the numbers on the table showing the importance of (hard) sciences to the Australian economy,” he said. “Our science and research community runs the risk of being perceived as cloistered away in academic ivory towers. All of us in this room know the truth — there are few disciplines more directly relevant to every Australian.”

Chubb’s findings were clearly of the unmuzzled variety. Almost immediately following the report’s release, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said the Abbot government would adopt some of the changes recommended by it in 2015.

“This year, the government will deliver a set of changes to ensure the system supports the contribution of scientific endeavour to national interest,” he said.

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About The Author /

Nick Waddell
Cantech Letter founder and editor Nick Waddell has lived in five Canadian provinces and is proud of his country's often overlooked contributions to the world of science and technology. Waddell takes a regular shift on the Canadian media circuit, making appearances on CTV, CBC and BNN, and contributing to publications such as Canadian Business and Business Insider.

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