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Evidence and Science in Parliament--Looking Back at CSPC and Moving Forward

October 29, 2018
By: 
Paul Dufour
Senior Fellow, Institute for Science, Society and Policy
University of Ottawa - PaulicyWorks

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of CSPC conferences, it is perhaps worth remembering one of the keynotes at the very first event in 2009. The speech was given by Preston Manning, then President of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy and founder of the Reform Party of Canada.

Speaking of his experience in Parliament, he asked: “When scientific issues come up in caucus, who is the champion?” He had been surprised by the paucity of science backgrounds among elected politicians and impressed by the UK experiments in providing sound evidence to Parliamentarians through their Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) established in 1989. In fact, along with suggesting that political parties make an effort to recruit more science-oriented candidates, he proposed that the Canadian government adopt a version of POST to assist MPs and Senators in their daily work.

Five years ago, in December 2013, another MP, Kennedy Stewart of the NDP ( now mayor of Vancouver), introduced a bill in the House to establish a Parliamentary Science Office (PSO) charged with providing independent analysis to Parliament on the state of Canada’s public interest science. It would initiate studies and request information to assess gaps in both policy for science and science for policy. While it was never adopted, it launched a debate on how to assist Parliament with using more effective evidence in committees and other matters.

Debates and panels within CSPC conferences over the years have often gravitated around the notion of evidence and use of sound knowledge to inform decision-making. This is no surprise given that the CSPC was launched during the harrowing years of the Harper administration which had largely eschewed science advice, eliminated advisory structures, and muzzled government science. Of course, since then, some progress has been made with the new administration around these matters including the re-creation of a Chief Science Advisor along with introducing science integrity principles for government scientists in partnership with PIPSC.

But the notion of a Parliamentary evidence information structure has been around for some time.

In the early ’80s, the Science Council of Canada (SCC) tested the demand from Parliament for more structured science advice.

A SCC discussion paper by Karen Fish, Parliamentarians and Science, in 1983 surveyed what members of Parliament had to say about the need and use of science advice for their work.
The results were chastening—there is little reason to believe that things have changed in the 35 years since the survey was completed.

Here is one response by an MP from that survey:

The committee structure is terrible. MPs go into committee completely unprepared. Departmental experts are called in to feed the MPs information, but there is an absolute lack of information flowing in the other direction.
The only place that scientific information could have any effect is in committee, but there the process is very partisan. In committee the point is to embarrass the minister and to score points for the folks at home.

And:

There is a fundamental inconsistency between parliamentary decision-making and planning for the long-range impacts of science and technology. Politics by definition is short term, and the nature of politics is to get re-elected. The political system doesn’t allow issues to be dealt with in a scientific fashion.. Decisions are made for emotional or political reasons.

It goes without saying that such statements can also be viewed as constructive commentary on how the science and research communities can better prepare in advocating for more science advice within our Parliament, not to mention understanding how Parliament functions.

The UK has developed a web of knowledge sources designed to assist in informing House and Lords Committees along with a sophisticated mechanism--- the Parliamentary Office for S&T and an annual MPs Pairing Scheme to address both sides of the receptor and demand issue—i.e.; how to make scientists less clueless about politics and how to make politicians less illiterate about the workings of science.

Knowing what’s available as information sources is also critical for Parliamentarians. As two MPs reported in the 1983 survey:

At the moment there is no direct access for parliamentarians to the experts. The experts get pissed off because they say parliamentarians do not know anything, and they are right— we don’t. Being aware of a problem is an entirely different thing than being alerted to a problem. This is an area where our resources are sorely lacking .

or more clearly stated by another;

we do not have scientists on the Hill, but if we are being asked to make decisions based on scientific information,we have got to have the resources to back us up.

We do have some agencies designed to provide such information such as the expert panel reports of the Council of Canadian Academies and the Royal Society of Canada, but these are punctual and do not necessarily respond to the pressing needs of MPs or Senators.

A periodic gathering of Parliamentarians with scientists and researchers takes place through the Bacon and Eggheads breakfast (which emerged from a recommendation by the Lamontage Senate Committee on Science Policy in the 70s), but these are often one-way talks to the audience. There are other sources as well including the Science Media Centre, or Genomics on the HIll events organized by Genome Canada—but they are not anchored within Parliament. In the case of Quebec, for example, their Chief Scientist has arranged for briefings with the National Assembly members on key emerging science-based public policy issues-- a model that could be easily adapted in other jurisdictions in Canada.

So what did the Science Council paper suggest to address the science literacy gaps? Here are some:

Expand the research capabilities of the Library of Parliament (they still need help)
Develop an ad hoc committee of parliamentarians, scientists and engineers with some resources (this has happened on occasion)
Provide internships for scientists and graduate students in all disciplines (the Science meets Parliament pilot experiment about to take place at CSPC this year is a good start)
A science and technology advisory position be established within Cabinet for the purpose of alerting these MPs to problems on the horizon and provide expert advice on policy matters (we have one today, but the resources and remit are limited)
Establish a standing committee for science and technology either in the house or jointly with the Senate (such committees used to exist in the mid-80s)
Create a visible and influential scientific umbrella organization akin to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the US (francophone Canada has one called ACFAS-- and an Association for the Advancement of Science in Canada did exist briefly in the 80s with a published magazine called Access; CSPC is moving in that direction with its new strategic plan).

Is there a demand still for much of this today? One could easily argue yes--- the sheer amount of information (sound and unsound) that passes through the hands of our elected representatives clearly requires some informed guidance on reliable knowledge. The form in which this can or should take is a good starting point for a future CSPC conference.