“This isn’t about Government and science. It’s crucially about society. We need stronger, clearer ways of science and people communicating. The dangers are in ignorance of each other’s point of view: the solution is understanding them”. (Tony Blair, 23 May 2002)
So Canada’s Prime Minister has reappointed the Chief Science Advisor for another two years until 2024. Good to see this. And congratulations to the CSA for her dynamic and continued public service and commitment to making a difference within our national research and knowledge landscape. Not everybody is aware of what a chief science advisor does nor do they fully appreciate the finer points of providing sound advice within any politically-charged environment increasingly facing highly disruptive features.
It is no easy task. No one is trained to be a science advisor. Rarely do they have much prior grounding in how the government operates and policy decisions are made. They learn on the job. It is a craft–-not a science. It comes with built-in values and, at times, over the top expectations. Chemistry and knowledge networks also matter. So does patience and not expecting advice to be always adopted. The ability to understand and communicate the essence of a complex issue is a gift. Practice – some or lots– doesn’t necessarily make perfect. But here in Canada, after five years on the job, Canada’s chief science advisor has no doubt learned a great deal; moved the yardsticks in some key areas; and will now have another two years to refine and, given the right support and signals, perhaps even re-imagine her craft for and with Canadians.
There is no question that the pandemic put a very different spin on the nature of the job over the past two years. It has consumed most science and health advisors and their staff both here and around the globe. But other critical issues may have been left by the wayside and a larger public debate needs to be engaged. In Canada, when the current Prime Minister made a big deal about the value of science and the need to respect scientists and researchers in his election campaign of 2015, he subsequently added the issue to the mandate letters of all of his Cabinet ministers, along with appointing a promised chief science advisor in 2017. A former science minister to that Cabinet intimated that the job should be made permanent so that the position of chief science advisor is not held hostage to the survival of any current administration and can seamlessly carry over to the next one, thus ensuring some continued stability, transparency and resilience in the advice.
Various pundits also suggested that it would be a mistake to have a chief science advisor and one office housed in a government department that does not see nor deal with the whole of the big policy-making picture. There were also associated concerns of how arm’s length such a position could be from day to day politics with perhaps its integrity or independence being compromised.
Still others, suggesting models from elsewhere, argued for a more independent functioning of a chief science advisor (or officer) appointed by the elected officials within Parliament.
But let’s be clear. One chief science advisor, no matter how brilliant or dedicated nor where the office is located, does not make a well-oiled science advisory ecosystem. The function needs to be embedded and linked within a larger framework of organizations that can both supply advice and respond to demand–regionally, nationally as well as globally. Pluralism in reliable advice–well grounded of course– can be an asset.
Further, this larger capacity also requires some form of foresight function— scanning for emerging threats on the horizon as well as identifying any new opportunities is critical in having an impact. For this, it helps to have an international watching brief (the research enterprise is essentially global by definition) not to mention access to the views of diverse, next generation researchers as well as the established knowledge institutions and other key stakeholders. In short, a fully functioning and effective chief science advisor demands support and ongoing input of the national knowledge ecosystem along with the required resources to have the necessary impact.
At the end of the day, good science advice is not about trying to make everyone think like a scientist. Rather, it is about maintaining a trusted, ongoing and open dialogue with both the public and the polity in helping frame key, science-informed issues while ably communicating these through persuasive evidence and powerful narrative.