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Considering the complicated life of a Chief Science Officer

February 29, 2016
By: 
Tim Lougheed
Freelance Writer, Former President (Canadian Writers’ Association)

When a mysterious disease began killing homosexual men and haemophiliacs in the early 1980s, American society was spooked by the implications and the federal government was forced to confront a mounting sense of calamity. In comparatively short order the Surgeon General of the day, C. Everett Koop, compiled a comprehensive report on what was then known about AIDS and HIV, outlining the current scientific understanding of its causes and consequences in a format that lay readers could absorb. An even more accessible version of the report was subsequently sent to every household in the country — 107 million addresses in all, the largest mailing in American history.

The impact transformed the United States in some fundamental ways. Discussion of the immune system, viruses, and the sharing of bodily fluids became the stuff of dinner table conversations. Condoms emerged from the shadows behind pharmacy counters to become brightly advertised for teenagers in between television music videos. For parents and children everywhere, it was a crash course in sex ed, driven by the unlikely policy of a very conservative administration overseen by President Ronald Reagan.

This is what science advice to government looks like when it succeeds. In the case of Koop, that advice was not only transparent but ubiquitous. It shared knowledge, addressed fears, and ultimately saved lives.

Many members of Canada’s scientific community would undoubtedly like to attach such lofty aspiration to a Chief Science Officer (CSO) for this country. The creation of that post was among the more prominent planks in the Liberal electoral platform, one that the Prime Minister formally assigned to new Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan in her Mandate Letter. The Minister’s office is now in the process of consulting the science and policy communities for some feedback on how the CSO’s post should be structured.

Even this modest act of consultation is bound to ratchet up expectations amongst groups and individuals who have wondered for years just where the federal government stands on matters of science, research, and development. Evidence for Democracy, an organization born from the outcry over the 2012 cancellation of federal funding to the Experimental Lakes Area, is in turn soliciting input from its membership in order to ensure that the CSO is “effective, robust, and broadly respected”. The ensuing chorus of voices will chime in from all corners of a constituency that has struggled to be heard.

At such a heady time, it is worth considering the question of what happens to all of these expectations once a CSO is actually in place. Given the ominous noises being made in advance of this government’s first budget, it is entirely possible that funding for science and technology will remain static or perhaps even curtailed in some unpleasant ways. A similar situation prevailed the last time in the Tories handed over the reins in the early 1990s, which many will recall as dark period of institutional contraction and brain drain. The promise of a CSO will do nothing to prevent this from happening again, nor should it, according to Sir Peter Gluckman, the New Zealand Prime Minister’s
Chief Science Advisor.

“There can be expectations that when you’re fighting for a science advisor you’re fighting for an in-house lobbyist for the science community,” he cautions. “But of course you’re not: you’re fighting for an in-house lobbyist for the use of science by government. There’s a really important difference.”

Gluckman was honoured this February in Washington at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which gave him its 2015 Award for Science Diplomacy. He understands the need for diplomacy in any kind of CSO undertaking, especially whenever he has found himself wedged in between a political leadership seeking objective consultation and a research community disappointed with their share of government funding.

“When the roles of science advisors get conflated, they tend to get more politicized,” he explains. “What we try to do is to show that science can be an apolitical powerful input into better decision-making by governments.”

Canada already long taken advantage of this powerful input through the Science Technology and Innovation Council, created in 2007, and before that the Council of Science and Technology Advisors, which dates back to 1996. However, the deliberations of these bodies largely took place behind closed doors and neither was ever intended to maintain the public accountability and profile of a CSO, who could easily become a lightning rod in exceptional circumstances such as those that highlighted Koop’s career.

“They’re going to have to earn the trust of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet,” says University of Ottawa Biology Professor Rees Kassen. “They have to show value and at the same time they have to show value to the country.”

Kassen, a longtime advocate of bridge-building between government and the research community, underscores that “country” refers to everyone, not just those two parties. In order to succeed, the CSO must be seen to benefit Canada as a whole.

“I would like to see the role of science advisor not rely solely on the heroic capabilities of one person,” he adds. “We have a very rich ecosystem of scientific knowledge creation, of scientific activity, of scientific translation — and potentially, of scientific advice.”

Gluckman — who himself coordinates the work of a variety of other science advisors located in other parts of the New Zealand government, and collaborates closely with the Royal Society of New Zealand (the National Academy)— absolutely agrees. Moreover, he concludes that the effectiveness of any CSO will depend on how far and wide their influence extends.

“That really determines how this role works,” he says. “Ultimately if this person doesn’t report across the whole of government, they can’t do the role I’m talking about.”