On January 23, the Harper government sacked the Canadian Science Advisor, turning its back on the only objective voice on science with direct access to the Prime Minister.
National Science Advisor Arthur Carty, who has held his position for almost four years, will be replaced by a 17-person Science and Technology council, which will include businesspeople, federal deputy ministers, and university heads in addition to scientists. Chemist and former Royal Society of Canada president Howard Alper will chair the council.
McGill Biology professor Frederic Guichard argued that the change will distance the government from a non-partisan scientific voice.
“The move has created a more diffuse link between science and the government,” he said.
According to the council web site, “the new Science Technology and Innovation Council will report to the Minister of Industry” instead of the Prime Minister. Both the council’s distance from the P.M. and its varied membership will make the government less liable for errors of judgment on scientific issues, Guichard said.
“The Prime Minister can say, ‘It went through my people’,” he argued. “All the scandals that politicians get away with are because they were handled by subunits of the government.”
The Harper government is introducing the council as part of its new science and technology strategy, which focuses on private research and development. The council web site states that the government wants to “turn [Canada’s] ideas into innovations that provide solutions to environment, health, and other important challenges, and to improve our economic competitiveness.” To this end, the council will “produce regular national reports that measure Canada’s science and technology performance against international standards of excellence.”
Guichard doubted that the council will be as effective as an individual in this role, because industry representatives and politicians on the council will distort the science.
“In principle a council could be good, but because of the politics involved, a single person can do a better job. There are politicians [and industry members] on the council that can lobby their position,” he said.
The council could also disappoint in times of crisis. Guichard pointed to the example of Robert May, who was Britain’s Chief Scientific Advisor during Britain’s mad cow disease outbreak in the mid-nineties, as an example of a science advisor providing steady and timely leadership. According to Guichard, the country’s swift and effective response to the disease was thanks to the recommendations of the science advisor, who reported directly to the Prime Minister.
It’s possible that, as the Conservatives suggest, the new council will help make Canada an innovative world leader. But it seems more likely, as some scientists warn, that the council’s distance from the Prime Minister will reduce the government’s accountability.