Canada needs to reform how scientific advice informs public policy.
In the lead up to the third Canadian Science Policy Conference, The Mark is excited to present a series of articles examining the health of science and innovation in Canada.
As decision-making becomes increasingly intertwined with critical issues anchored in scientific advances and rapid technological development, accessible scientific advice has become a hallmark of most knowledge-based societies. For example, following a decree by U.S. President Barack Obama, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has implemented guidelines for greater scientific integrity within federal government agencies and departments. In the U.K., a House of Lords study is underway to examine the long-standing role of chief science advisers within government, and, in Australia, the new chief scientist is championing the Inspiring Australia campaign to bring science into the mainstream of public policy.
In Canada, after numerous experiments attempting to provide a responsive, sound, and open scientific advisory committee, we seem to be going in the opposite direction. With the elimination of the national science adviser’s office, other science-based advisory bodies, and the science and technology council in Quebec, Canadians have been left with a federal Science, Technology, and Innovation Council whose advice to government is confidential. We need to rethink our approach in this important dimension of our science ecosystem.
Scientific advice operates at the interstices of the policy and public domains, and is therefore subject to the prevailing vagaries of political change and public discourse. It is also a function of how articulate and media savvy one is in making a case for its importance to the electorate. To be sure, our political leaders carry a responsibility for not taking scientific advice seriously enough, and for constantly tinkering with its machinery. But frankly, the science lobbying (not an oxymoron) community here also has to carry some of the blame for its own role in the sad state of scientific advisory affairs in the country today.
The research advocacy community in Canada has been a poorly resourced and, often, politically naïve collective. This naivety has often given rise to the stereotypical image of scientists as members of a special-interest group – clothed in white coats, and communicating advice to politicians that is at best “inaccessible” to the average citizen. There is no reason this situation should persist in a country that has an excellent science and talent capacity, and that claims to be a knowledge-based society.
So how can we improve the scientific advisory capacity for decision-makers and their constituents?
One important consideration for the development of effective scientific advisory policies is the need to clearly delineate exactly what the policies are for: What do the policies try to do? Who are they directed at, and what practical changes can they be expected to make?
It is also important to determine whether a particular existing body or group is already capable of undertaking the required advisory role in the public arena. You would be surprised at the number of studies that have been commissioned on various policy issues without taking into account that existing structures can already do this work. At times, the proclivity to go to, or initiate, a new source instead of relying on existing institutions may be because the sitting government wishes to show that it is taking a fresh approach. However, if an existing institution can provide scientific advice, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
A third consideration for developing effective scientific advice pivots on understanding what the public’s receptivity to that advice will be. Are the recommendations crafted in such a way as to be realistic for the current political context? This is not to suggest that advice must avoid being far-reaching and bold in its direction in order to cater to public tastes. Rather, it must be conscious of its environment to ensure a better grafting of the advice to the body politic and the public it purports to be helping. Many a report with specific scientific advice has ended up shipwrecked on the shores of a remote island because it didn’t pay attention to where the lighthouse of public sentiment had cast its beam.
On a related note, far too much scientific advice funded by public sources ends up being held as private or confidential, with advisees failing to share the analyses and results with larger audiences. Communicating the advice in a literate fashion is equally critical. If you can’t say what you have to say for the general public, then the message is lost. As a result, the public often becomes increasingly suspicious of the nature of any such advice. Decision-making can suffer as a consequence.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, long-term, over-the-horizon thinking must be built into scientific advice. Much advice today is geared toward the here and now, and quite often for good reason: Advice needs to be timely (for example, during food scares, pandemics, safety recalls, etc.). But, if well-delivered, it should also be reflective of down-stream impacts and needs. For instance, can this advice also help develop a new generation of talent and skills that can further advance the recommendations and their outcomes beyond the lifespan of any given government? Sound scientific advice should be context driven for the sake of its audience, but it must also be generational in its impact.
Canada is ripe for more experiments in the scientific advisory domain. Our public, research communities, parliamentarians, and policymakers should be demanding (and welcoming) well-grounded, independent scientific advice that engages Canadian society in a meaningful way. Sound scientific advice matters. Isn’t it time that we had some leadership and drive from our knowledge community to tackle this gap in our public policy?
Photo courtesy of Reuters.