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A Chief Science Officer for Canada?

March 24, 2016
By: 
Ron Freedman
CEO, Research Infosource Inc.

(Re-)appointing a Chief Science Officer for Canada would undoubtedly raise the spirits of many in Canada’s S&T community, at least temporarily. But before we increase the national debt by a few million dollars a year to fund the initiative it is worth posing some hard questions about a CSO position. In particular: What would a CSO do that a Minister of Science could not and, Whom does a CSO work for (and report to)? These are important questions that need to be answered before Canada appoints a CSO.

But first, why do many in the S&T community want a Chief Science Officer? For the same reasons that egg farmers would love to see a federal Chief Egg Officer (CEO), or dry cleaners would delight in a Chief Dry Cleaning Officer (CDCO) or ice cream manufacturers would be thrilled by the appointment of a Chief Ice Cream Officer (CICO); the S&T community wants a Chief Science Officer - let’s be honest here - to increase federal government spending on science.

In contrast, hardly anybody would support establishing a CSO position if it’s stated objective was to reduce the level or increase the efficiency or effectiveness of science spending in any way or for whatever reason in any department, agency or external stakeholder organization. So, a CSO’s primary (if un-acknowledged) objective is to increase science spending, full stop. Yes, inevitably other objectives would be proclaimed, such as “improve coordination”, “facilitate interaction”, “contribute to policy development”, etc. etc. All good stuff, but beside the point.

For decades Canada has had a minister of science whose job, presumably, is to: (1) represent the interests of Canadian science - academic, industrial and non-profit - within government; (2) manage (or at least coordinate) interdepartmental, inter-governmental and international science affairs; and, (3) explain government science decisions to external audiences. Although the current science minister position is in all but appearance a junior cabinet position, the science minister does nonetheless have an ability to provide input to cabinet agendas and to influence individual cabinet ministers and federal legislation/regulations, in a way that no CSO could. (And don’t forget, in addition to the science minister there are many other cabinet ministers lobbying to increase their own science budgets.) Some science ministers have performed well in the role and some less well. Given the positive trajectory of federal science spending under two very different governments in the past 15 years, one could argue that science ministers on the whole have succeeded rather well. So, from that perspective Canada already has a Chief Science Officer, the minister of science.

Nearly all federal government spending on S&T is within the purview of individual ministers responsible for agriculture, environment, health, industry, national defence, natural resources, transportation, etc. This is unlikely to change any time soon. There is little or no prospect of a core federal science budget that would be centrally allocated to individual ministries by a CSO (or anyone else). That idea would tread either on too many legislative and regulatory requirements or on political and administrative interests. In any event, a central science budget would require establishing central government science priorities, which is practically speaking an impossibility (except perhaps in a Soviet-style centrally planned economy). So, we can rule out any direct influence of a CSO on science spending, although a CSO might have some indirect avenues for influencing financial decisions - e.g. by releasing a report titled “Canada’s Spending on (Your Pet S&T Issue Goes Here) Deemed Woefully Inadequate”. So, it’s hard to see how a CSO would fulfil the ambitions of the S&T community for more spending better than a science minister would.

To whom would a Chief Science Officer report? There are two main options: directly to parliament or indirectly to parliament through a Cabinet minister or minister of state. In the first example if the CSO were to report directly to parliament (as does the Parliamentary Budget Officer, for example) then the CSO would be independent of the government of the day and free to evaluate and comment on government policies, programs, spending, etc. (Ignore, for the moment that the Auditor General already has these powers and in past has usefully critiqued government S&T spending.) In that case, the CSO would immediately become an adversary of the government, because he/she would find it necessary to point out the failures of government S&T policy, rather than extol its successes. This would not endear the CSO to a sitting government because no government wants a third party - especially one with official status - to criticize its decisions or actions.

Alternately, a CSO could report to parliament through a cabinet minister - presumably the minister of science - but would then lose his/her independence, because the minister or department in question would filter out or temper negative ideas emanating from a CSO before they were released to the public. An internal government CSO would also supercede some existing advisory bodies, which might or might not be a good thing, but would likely be resisted by those bodies and their stakeholders. Also, within government a CSO would inevitably be associated with the interests of the sponsoring minister/department and not of other ministers/departments, which would obviate the point of a CSO with government-wide oversight.

So, will any of these considerations affect the government’s decision to appoint a Chief Science Officer? Don’t bet on it.

 

ron@researchinfosource.com