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Chief Science Officer for Canada; Insights and Recommendations

March 31, 2016
By: 
The Science Advisory Committee, PIPSC

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) represents more than 15,000 federal scientists and other professionals employed by federal science-based departments and agencies.

Federal scientists and researchers have faced considerable challenges in recent years due to communications policies that prevented them from speaking publicly about their research. In addition, ongoing funding cuts to staff and programs and shifts in priorities away from science have silenced scientists by other means. These developments, which seriously harmed the public interest our members serve, were examined in considerable detail in two recent reports we published. The reports, based on a 2013 survey of our members are:

The Big Chill"
http://www.pipsc.ca/portal/page/portal/website/issues/science/bigchill
and
"Vanishing Science"
http://www.pipsc.ca/portal/page/portal/website/issues/science/vanishings...

These experiences have led our members to take a keen, active interest in seeing federal scientific integrity restored through public policy, guaranteed through collective agreements and advanced by officials such as the Chief Science Officer (CSO), who, in the words of the Liberal electoral platform would “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.”

We expect that the position of CSO will be key in moving forward the government's agenda for innovation and science-based decision-making. The CSO position will also be important for PIPSC and and the value our members place on science integrity. The experience in various countries with CSOs or their equivalent (UK, New Zeeland) has demonstrated that the position demands a careful balance between proactive assessment and monitoring and valorization of research priorities, on the one hand, and provision of advice and being responsive to government direction and imperatives on the other. While some departments and agencies have embraced a new openness about research since the new government came to power, others have been less so. We expect the CSO will have considerable work to do to promote and ensure a federal research environment that maintains ongoing, healthy, and open communication of research and its implications - not only among other researchers but also to the public at large. An active CSO would carefully examine science communications policies in the various science-based departments and agencies to suggest where they might be improved to protect the integrity of Canadian science.

PIPSC would like the Chief Science Officer to have the following responsibilities:

  • Protecting federal science from inappropriate political interference;
  • Rebuilding federal science capacity;
  • Promoting evidence-based decision making in political decisions;
  • Promoting transparency and integrity in scientific research;
  • Promoting and raising awareness of science across government and among Canadians;
  • Encouraging coordination between all federal departments and agencies that conduct scientific research;
  • Providing Government, Parliamentarians and Canadians with accurate and timely advice on scientific matters of relevance and on science policy;

That's only a first step. There is a need for discussions on how to increase innovation by federal research to contribute to Canada's economy and society, and for more involvement of science in decision-making of all kinds. In a tight economy, the challenge of restoring and improving government research in this context is considerable. There is also a need to find the right balance for federal research in Canada’s research ecosystem. Ideally, a CSO would help the new Minister of Science find ways to promote the role of government research in guiding and balancing science leadership-- just doing research isn't enough. Properly structured and supported, government research provides the long-term vision, expert advice, and accountability needed to maximize the contribution of Canadian research to the country's health, wealth, and well-being.

Ideally, a CSO would help the new Minister of Science find ways to promote the role of government research in guiding and balancing science leadership--because just doing research isn't enough. Properly structured and supported, government research can provide the long-term vision, expert advice, and accountability needed to maximize the contribution of Canadian research to the country's health, wealth, and well-being. While some have called for a CSO with strong bureaucratic experience, we see that as secondary to an ability to maintain the above-mentioned balance between pro-activity and responsiveness, and the credibility that provides. A CSO would certainly need a staff to fulfill the ambitious expectations we've outlined above.

A number of Canada's researchers involved in various PIPSC groups and committees (e.g. the national NRC RO/RCO, RE, and SP executives, the Science Advisory Council, etc.) and a number of PIPSC members that are higher level scientists (including Nobel laureates) have a deep familiarity with the issues in play; they have a track record of passionate advocacy for government science. They also have a wealth of experience with science advocacy, on the one hand, and responding to government imperatives on the other.

We expect that the new CSO will include PIPSC as an important stakeholder in efforts to build Canadian science integrity and capacity. We also know that PIPSC members include many of the very people who can help get the job done. We hope that PIPSC can play a role in shaping the CSO position into a vital one for the country.