Chief Science Officer for Canada: Insights and Recommendations

March 31, 2016
Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson
Ph.D. in Philosophy
Humber College, Toronto, Canada

Canada’s Chief Science officer will inherit a conflicted environment in terms of science policy. This dualistic landscape is conformed, on the one hand, of precautionary approaches, and one the other, of “proactionary” ones. Our Chief Science Officer will have to have the knowledge and experience to carefully but firmly navigate through this difficult situation for the advancement of science in our nation.

A precautionary approach is the default position in science policy concerning foreseeable (and unforeseeable) consequences—medically, socially and policy-wise. Precautionary stances tend to emphasize the potential dangers of novel scientific and technological avenues of research, calling for the slowing down or halting of investigation until the side effects are better known. In response to this, many researchers do not feel comfortable with an alleged “red tape” absent in research environments abroad. Many scientists, aware of the lack of such regulations in other geographic scientific environments, feel that these purported excessive constraints cripple their research, negatively affecting potential developments and in general placing Canada (and indeed, this side of the world) at a competitive disadvantage. Some consider moving their research to other environments less burdened by “discovery-unfriendly” policies. As a result, dialogue between frontier science and public policy risks coming to a halt. A recent and illuminating case is the editing of the human DNA germline by Chinese researchers in May 2015: A line of research banned in most Western societies due to its heredity consequences—the modification does not die with the subject, but is passed onto its offspring—and whose publication was rejected by both Nature and Science journals. 1

An aspect of the reaction against control is manifested in the radically libertarian attitudes regarding state intervention in—and regulation of— such potentially disruptive scientific research. Making things more complicated, it seems that in science and technology environments, as much as in politics, radically libertarian individuals end up being absorbed by powerful corporations. These commercial mega entities may in turn end up collecting exclusive royalties for goods that might turn out to be necessary for bare human survival. What kind of power would L’Oréal wield (given that now it holds the patent for the best artificial skin 2 ) in case of widespread environmental radiation that would make of skin grafting as necessary as eating? Given an increasingly normalized pharmaceutic and “neurochemical self” 3  (where cognitive enhancers and personality modulators become the new expected default), what type of influence can the corporation producing them exert upon the very fabric of society? One does not have to claim any type of allegiance to the notion of an overseeing and controlling state to see the danger of leaving such realms of life at the mercy of for-profit organizations.

This polarized landscape, where we have on the one hand a profoundly libertarian attitude inimical to science regulation (understood as state intrusion into the ostensible politics-free realm of science) and on the other, a precautionary stance unfriendly to frontier research due to its possible negative consequences (potentially locating Canadian science and technology at a position of near-future disadvantage when compared with less regulated societies), cannot continue unchecked if we are to hope that scientific progress in Canada shall not reach a crippling halt. In what concerns the ethical implications of both the scientific procedures and the benefits obtained out of their technological applications, this impasse does not help either.

Canada’s Chief Science Officer might want to explore a third alternative, one that would foster a risk-taking approach nevertheless backed by the state. Indeed, she might want to consider the conditions of possibility for a broad societal framework with strong state control (following the Scandinavian model) but still promoting risk friendly approaches to science. This may even contribute to turn the left-right divide on its head, since usually Welfare State societies tend to be strongly precautionary, and market-friendly societies tend to be libertarian and more risk-taking. This outdated left-right divide is also manifested in another important context. The possibility of a rapprochement with the military is a position usually frowned upon in liberal environments but promoted among conservative libertarians. However, overcoming this dualism, inclusive to this openness could be the exploration of the usually long term goals present in military thinking as potentially useful for a regulated science funding, free from the corporate-based need for the immediate results, commodification and commercialization favored in libertarian environments.