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Science advice and the role of anticipated Chief Science Officer

March 24, 2016
By: 
Kamiel S. Gabriel
Professor of Engineering & Applied Sciences, UOIT, and Former ADM Research and Science Adviser, Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation

A general problem common to all governments, at least in the Western world, is the inherent difficulty of achieving both scientific credibility and influence on the political process. Scientific credibility normally rests upon the expertise, independence, and objectivity of the body issuing an opinion. Bias and conflicts of interest are considered defects to be eliminated or balanced.

There is an inherit difficulty when it comes to the integration of science advice with policy making. The processes that allow for interactions between scientists and policy makers help to reduce such difficulties, but they raise other questions related to the objectivity of the scientific advice. The use of consultancy reports, workshops, and other tools of conference diplomacy result in a mingling of political interests and scientific assessments to levels that may undermine the credibility of the outputs.

The scientific community places great stock in peer review, where reports or recommendations of a group of scientists are reviewed and criticized, usually anonymously by other scientists of equal expertise and standing, and the original group is expected to respond to the their criticisms. Scientific consensus evolves with time through experiment, discovery, and new theories and ideas. What is considered good science advice mirrors this evolutionary process, taking account of change and continuing uncertainty. A balance must be found that retains scientific integrity and still provides policy influence.

Reflecting the nature of science itself, science advice involves certain principles and procedures. These generally involve the participation of balanced multidisciplinary expert panels selected to study specific problems, with heavy reliance on peer review of consensus reports and explicit exposure of areas of uncertainty, disagreement, and dissent. There is usually a powerful consensus among working scientists regarding the current state of knowledge in any field, and there are established procedures that are used by the scientific community to determine and express that consensus.

A partial solution is to have the science advisory process of each Jurisdiction (or region) managed by an appointed science advisor within the directorate who can provide interpretation for the political bodies of credible science advice and guidance for the scientists on the policy issues (UK model-see footnote). This means that a science advisor is not simply one who “tells truth to power,” in part because no science advisor can possess more than a small part of the knowledge that is relevant to most complex scientific questions. Instead, the role of the advisor should be to organize the process and serve as a link between decision makers and the scientific community.

The science advisor can formulate the questions, recruit the experts, oversee the process, organize the peer review, and then advise the executive how to make use of the advice in the light of other legitimate inputs and interests. This will effectively create a new service to serve as a buffer and intermediary between the strict procedural demands of a credible science advice system and the give and take of the political process.

Footnote: In the UK, The Government Office for Science is headed by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA). It exists to ensure that government policy and decision-making is underpinned by robust science and engineering evidence. The GCSA reports to the Prime Minister and Cabinet and works with other government departments. Government departments with significant R&D spending each have their own Departmental Chief Scientific Adviser (DCSA).  DCSAs work together under the leadership of the GCSA to support each other and to address and advise on cross-cutting issues. They do this primarily through the Chief Scientific Advisors Committee (CSAC) and by engaging the best scientists nationally and often internationally to help ensure that the is as robust as possible.