Tag Archives: Mehrdad Hariri

Science and technology, the 2019 Canadian federal government, and the Phoenix Pay System

This posting will focus on science, technology, the tragic consequence of bureaucratic and political bungling (the technology disaster that is is the Phoenix payroll system), and the puzzling lack of concern about some of the biggest upcoming technological and scientific changes in government and society in decades or more.

Setting the scene

After getting enough Liberal party members elected to the Canadian Parliament’s House of Commons to form a minority government in October 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a new cabinet and some changes to the ‘science’ portfolios in November 2019. You can read more about the overall cabinet announcement in this November 20, 2019 news item by Peter Zimonjic on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website, my focus will be the science and technology. (Note: For those who don’t know, there is already much discussion about how long this Liberal minority government will last. All i takes is a ‘loss of confidence’ motion and a majority of the official opposition and other parties to vote ‘no confidence’ and Canada will back into the throes of an election. Mitigating against a speedy new federal election,, the Conservative party [official opposition] needs to choose a new leader and the other parties may not have the financial resources for another federal election so soon after the last one.)

Getting back to now and the most recent Cabinet announcements, it seems this time around, there’s significantly less interest in science. Concerns about this were noted in a November 22, 2019 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail,

Canadian researchers are raising concerns that the loss of a dedicated science minister signals a reduced voice for their agenda around the federal cabinet table.

“People are wondering if the government thinks its science agenda is done,” said Marie Franquin, a doctoral student in neuroscience and co-president of Science and Policy Exchange, a student-led research-advocacy group. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”

While not a powerful player within cabinet, Ms. Duncan [Kirsty Duncan] proved to be an ardent booster of Canada’s research community and engaged with its issues, including the muzzling of federal scientists by the former Harper government and the need to improve gender equity in the research ecosystem.

Among Ms. Duncan’s accomplishments was the appointment of a federal chief science adviser [sic] and the commissioning of a landmark review of Ottawa’s support for fundamental research, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor

… He [Andre Albinati, managing principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group] added the role of science in government is now further bolstered by chief science adviser [sic] Mona Nemer and a growing network of departmental science advisers [sic]. .

Mehrdad Hariri, president of the Canadian Science Policy Centre …, cautioned that the chief science adviser’s [sic] role was best described as “science for policy,” meaning the use of science advice in decision-making. He added that the government still needed a separate role like that filled by Ms. Duncan … to champion “policy for science,” meaning decisions that optimize Canada’s research enterprise.

There’s one other commentary (by CresoSá) but I’m saving it for later.

The science minister disappears

There is no longer a separate position for Science. Kirsty Duncan was moved from her ‘junior’ position as Minister of Science (and Sport) to Deputy Leader of the government. Duncan’s science portfolio has been moved over to Navdeep Bains whose portfolio evolved from Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (yes, there were two ‘ministers of science’) to Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. (It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Sadly, nobody from the Prime Minister’s team called to ask for my input on the matter.)

Science (and technology) have to be found elsewhere

There’s the Natural Resources (i.e., energy, minerals and metals, forests, earth sciences, mapping, etc.) portfolio which was led by Catherine McKenna who’s been moved over to Infrastructure and Communities. There have been mumblings that she was considered ‘too combative’ in her efforts. Her replacement in Natural Resources is Seamus O’Regan. No word yet on whether or not, he might also be ‘too combative’. Of course, it’s much easier if you’re female to gain that label. (You can read about the spray-painted slurs found on the windows of McKenna’s campaign offices after she was successfully re-elected. See: Mike Blanchfield’s October 24, 2019 article for Huffington Post and Brigitte Pellerin’s October 31, 2019 article for the Ottawa Citizen.)

There are other portfolios which can also be said to include science such as Environment and Climate Change which welcomes a new minister, Jonathan Wilkinson moving over from his previous science portfolio, Fisheries, Oceans, and Canadian Coast Guard where Bernadette Jordan has moved into place. Patti Hajdu takes over at Heath Canada (which despite all of the talk about science muzzles being lifted still has its muzzle in place). While it’s not typically considered a ‘science’ portfolio in Canada, the military establishment regardless of country has long been considered a source of science innovation; Harjit Sajjan has retained his Minister of National Defence portfolio.

Plus there are at least half a dozen other portfolios that can be described as having significant science and/or technology elements folded into their portfolios, e.g., Transport Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food, Safety and Emergency Preparedness, etc.

As I tend to focus on emerging science and technology, most of these portfolios are not ones I follow even on an irregular basis meaning I have nothing more to add about them in this posting. Mixing science and technology together in this posting is a reflection of how tightly the two are linked together. For example, university research into artificial intelligence is taking place on theoretical levels (science) and as applied in business and government (technology). Apologies to the mathematicians but this explanation is already complicated and I don’t think I can do justice to their importance.

Moving onto technology with a strong science link, this next portfolio received even less attention than the ‘science’ portfolios and I believe that’s undeserved.

The Minister of Digital Government and a bureaucratic débacle

These days people tend to take the digital nature of daily life for granted and that may be why this portfolio has escaped much notice. When the ministerial posting was first introduced, it was an addition to Scott Brison’s responsibilities as head of the Treasury Board. It continued to be linked to the Treasury Board when Joyce Murray* inherited Brison’s position, after his departure from politics. As of the latest announcement in November 2019, Digital Government and the Treasury Board are no longer tended to by the same cabinet member.

The new head of the Treasury Board is Jean-Yves Duclos while Joyce Murray has held on to the Minister of Digital Government designation. I’m not sure if the separation from the Treasury Board is indicative of the esteem the Prime Minister has for digital government or if this has been done to appease someone or some group, which means the digital government portfolio could well disappear in the future just as the ‘junior’ science portfolio did.

Regardless, here’s some evidence as to why I think ‘digital government’ is unfairly overlooked, from the minister’s December 13, 2019 Mandate Letter from the Prime Minister (Note: All of the emphases are mine],

I will expect you to work with your colleagues and through established legislative, regulatory and Cabinet processes to deliver on your top priorities. In particular, you will:

  • Lead work across government to transition to a more digital government in order to improve citizen service.
  • Oversee the Chief Information Officer and the Canadian Digital Service as they work with departments to develop solutions that will benefit Canadians and enhance the capacity to use modern tools and methodologies across Government.
  • Lead work to analyze and improve the delivery of information technology (IT) within government. This work will include identifying all core and at-risk IT systems and platforms. You will lead the renewal of SSC [Shared Services Canada which provides ‘modern, secure and reliable IT services so federal organizations can deliver digital programs and services to meet Canadians’ needs’] so that it is properly resourced and aligned to deliver common IT infrastructure that is reliable and secure.
  • Lead work to create a centre of expertise that brings together the necessary skills to effectively implement major transformation projects across government, including technical, procurement and legal expertise.
  • Support the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry in continuing work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government.
  • With the support of the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, accelerate progress on a new Government of Canada service strategy that aims to create a single online window for all government services with new performance standards.
  • Support the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development in expanding and improving the services provided by Service Canada.
  • Support the Minister of National Revenue on additional steps required to meaningfully improve the satisfaction of Canadians with the quality, timeliness and accuracy of services they receive from the Canada Revenue Agency.
  • Support the Minister of Public Services and Procurement in eliminating the backlog of outstanding pay issues for public servants as a result of the Phoenix Pay System.
  • Lead work on the Next Generation Human Resources and Pay System to replace the Phoenix Pay System and support the President of the Treasury Board as he actively engages Canada’s major public sector unions.
  • Support the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development and the Minister of National Revenue to implement a voluntary, real-time e-payroll system with an initial focus on small businesses.
  • Fully implement lessons learned from previous information technology project challenges and failures [e,g, the Phoenix Payroll System], particularly around sunk costs and major multi-year contracts. Act transparently by sharing identified successes and difficulties within government, with the aim of constantly improving the delivery of projects large and small.
  • Encourage the use and development of open source products and open data, allowing for experimentation within existing policy directives and building an inventory of validated and secure applications that can be used by government to share knowledge and expertise to support innovation.

To be clear, the Minister of Digital Government is responsible (more or less) for helping to clean up a débacle, i.e., the implementation of the federal government’s Phoenix Payroll System and drive even more digitization and modernization of government data and processes.

They’ve been trying to fix the Phoenix problems since the day it was implemented in early 2016.That’s right, it will be four years in Spring 2020 when the Liberal government chose to implement a digital payroll system that had been largely untested and despite its supplier’s concerns.

The Phoenix Pay System and a great sadness

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (the largest union for federal employees; PSAC) has a separate space for Phoneix on its website, which features this video,

That video was posted on September 24, 2018 (on YouTube) and, to my knowledge, the situation has not changed appreciably. A November 8, 2019 article by Tom Spears for the Ottawa Citizen details a very personal story about what can only be described as a failure on just about every level you can imagine,

Linda Deschâtelets’s death by suicide might have been prevented if the flawed Phoenix pay system hadn’t led her to emotional and financial ruin, a Quebec coroner has found.

Deschâtelets died in December of 2017, at age 52. At the time she was struggling with chronic pain and massive mortgage payments.

The fear of losing her home weighed heavily on her. In her final text message to one of her sons she said she had run out of energy and wanted to die before she lost her house in Val des Monts.

But Deschâtelets might have lived, says a report from coroner Pascale Boulay, if her employer, the Canada Revenue Agency, had shown a little empathy.

“During the final months before her death, she experienced serious financial troubles linked to the federal government’s pay system, Phoenix, which cut off her pay in a significant way, making her fear she would lose her house,” said Boulay’s report.

“A thorough analysis of this case strongly suggests that this death could have been avoided if a search for a solution to the current financial, psychological and medical situation had been made.”

Boulay found “there is no indication that management sought to meet Ms. Deschâtelets to offer her options. In addition, the lack of prompt follow-up in the processing of requests for information indicates a distressing lack of empathy for an employee who is experiencing real financial insecurity.”

Pay records “indeed show that she was living through serious financial problems and that she received irregular payments since the beginning of October 2017,” the coroner wrote.

As well, “her numerous online applications using the form for a compensation problem, in which she expresses her fear of not being able to make her mortgage payments and says that she wants a detailed statement of account, remain unanswered.”

On top of that, she had chronic back pain and sciatica and had been missing work. She was scheduled to get an ergonomically designed work area, but this change was never made even though she waited for months.

Money troubles kept getting worse.

She ran out of paid sick leave, and her department sent her an email to explain that she had automatically been docked pay for taking sick days. “In this same email, she was also advised that in the event that she missed additional days, other amounts would be deducted. No further follow-up with her was done,” the coroner wrote.

That email came eight days before her death.

Deschâtelets was also taking cocaine but this did not alter the fact that she genuinely risked losing her home over her financial problems, the coroner wrote.

“Given the circumstances, it is highly likely that Ms. Deschâtelets felt trapped” and ended her life “because of her belief that she would lose the house anyway. It was only a matter of time.”

The situation is “even more sad” because CRA had advisers on site who dealt with Phoenix issues, and could meet with employees, Boulay wrote.

“The federal government does a lot of promotion of workplace wellness. Surprisingly, these wellness measures are silent on the subject of financial insecurity at work,” Boulay wrote.

I feel sad for the family and indignant that there doesn’t seem to have been enough done to mitigate the hardships due to an astoundingly ill-advised decision to implement an untested payroll system for the federal government’s 280,000 or more civil servants.

Canada’s Senate reports back on Phoenix

I’m highlighting the Senate report here although there are also two reports from the Auditor General should you care to chase them down. From an August 1, 2018 article by Brian Jackson for IT World Canada,

In February 2016, in anticipation of the start of the Phoenix system rolling out, the government laid off 2,700 payroll clerks serving 120,000 employees. [I’m guessing the discrepancy in numbers of employees may be due to how the clerks were laid off, i.e., if they were load off in groups scheduled to be made redundant at different intervals.]

As soon as Phoenix was launched, problems began. By May 2018 there were 60,000 pay requests backlogged. Now the government has dedicated resources to explaining to affected employees the best way to avoid pay-related problems, and to file grievances related to the system.

“The causes of the failure are multiple, including, failing to manage the pay system in an integrated fashion with human resources processes, not conducting a pilot project, removing essential processing functions to stay on budget, laying off experienced compensation advisors, and implementing a pay system that wasn’t ready,” the Senate report states. “We are dismayed that this project proceeded with minimal independent oversight, including from central agencies, and that no one has accepted responsibility for the failure of Phoenix or has been held to account. We believe that there is an underlying cultural problem that needs to be addressed. The government needs to move away from a culture that plays down bad news and avoids responsibility, [emphasis mine] to one that encourages employee engagement, feedback and collaboration.”

There is at least one estimate that the Phoenix failure will cost $2.2 billion but I’m reasonably certain that figure does not include the costs of suicide, substance abuse, counseling, marriage breakdown, etc. (Of course, how do you really estimate the cost of a suicide or a marriage breakdown or the impact that financial woes have on children?)

Also concerning the Senate report, there is a July 31, 2018 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online,

“We are not confident that this problem has been solved, that the lessons have all been learned,” said Sen. André Pratte, deputy chair of the committee. [emphases mine]

I haven’t seen much coverage about the Phoenix Pay System recently in the mainstream media but according to a December 4, 2019 PSAC update,

The Parliamentary Budget Officer has said the Phoenix situation could continue until 2023, yet government funding commitments so far have fallen significantly short of what is needed to end the Phoenix nightmare. 

PSAC will continue pressing for enough funding and urgent action:

  • eliminate the over 200,000 cases in the pay issues backlog
  • compensate workers for their many hardships
  • stabilize Phoenix
  • properly develop, test and launch a new pay system

2023 would mean the débacle had a seven year lifespan, assuming everything has been made better by then.

Finally, there seems to be one other minister tasked with the Phoenix Pay System ‘fix’ (December 13, 2019 mandate letter) and that is the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, Anita Anand. She is apparently a rookie MP (member of Parliament), which would make her a ‘cabinet rookie’ as well. Interesting choice.

More digital for federal workers and the Canadian public

Despite all that has gone before, the government is continuing in its drive to digitize itself as can be seen in the Minister of Digital Government’s mandate letter (excerpted above in ‘The Minister of Digital Government and some …’ subsection) and on the government’s Digital Government webspace,

Our digital shift to becoming more agile, open, and user-focused. We’re working on tomorrow’s Canada today.

I don’t find that particularly reassuring in light of the Phoenix Payroll System situation. However, on the plus side, Canada has a Digital Charter with 10 principles which include universal access, safety and security, control and consent, etc. Oddly, it looks like it’s the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry who are tasked with enhancing and advancing the charter. Shouldn’t this group also include the Minister of Digital Government?

The Minister of Digital Government, Joyce Murray, does not oversee a ministry and I think that makes this a ‘junior’ position in much the same way the Minister of Science was a junior position. It suggests a mindset where some of the biggest changes to come for both employees and the Canadian public are being overseen by someone without the resources to do the work effectively or the bureaucratic weight and importance to ensure the changes are done properly.

It’s all very well to have a section on the Responsible use of artificial intelligence (AI) on your Digital Government webspace but there is no mention of ways and means to fix problems. For example, what happens to people who somehow run into an issue that the AI system can’t fix or even respond to because the algorithm wasn’t designed that way. Ever gotten caught in an automated telephone system? Or perhaps more saliently, what about the people who died in two different airplane accidents due to the pilots’ poor training and an AI system? (For a more informed view of the Boeing 737 Max, AI, and two fatal plane crashes see: a June 2, 2019 article by Rachel Kraus for Mashable.)

The only other minister whose mandate letter includes AI is the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, Navdeep Bains (from his December 13, 2019 mandate letter),

  • With the support of the Minister of Digital Government, continue work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government.

So, the Minister of Digital Government, Joyce Murray, is supporting the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, Navdeep Bains. That would suggest a ‘junior’ position wouldn’t it? If you look closely at the Minister of Digital Services’ mandate letter, you’ll see the Minister is almost always supporting another minister.

Where the Phoenix Pay System is concerned, the Minister of Digital Services is supporting the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, the previously mentioned rookie MP and rookie Cabinet member, Anita Anand. Interestingly, the employees’ union, PSAC, has decided (as of a November 20, 2019 news release) to ramp up its ad campaign regarding the Phoenix Pay System and its bargaining issues by targeting the Prime Minister and the new President of the Treasury Board, Jean-Yves Duclos. Guess whose mandate letter makes no mention of Phoenix (December 13, 2019 mandate letter for the President of the Treasury Board).

Open government, eh?

Putting a gift bow on a pile of manure doesn’t turn it into a gift (for most people, anyway) and calling your government open and/or transparent doesn’t necessarily make it so even when you amend your Access to Information Act to make it more accessible (August 22, 2019 Digital Government news release by Ruth Naylor).

One of the Liberal government’s most heavily publicized ‘open’ initiatives was the lifting of the muzzles put on federal scientists in the Environment and Natural Resources ministries. Those muzzles were put into place by a Conservative government and the 2015 Liberal government gained a lot of political capital from its actions. No one seemed to remember that Health Canada also had been muzzled. That muzzle had been put into place by one of the Liberal governments preceding the Conservative one. To date there is no word as to whether or not that muzzle has ever been lifted.

However, even in the ministries where the muzzles were lifted, it seems scientists didn’t feel free to speak even many months later (from a Feb 21, 2018 article by Brian Owens for Science),

More than half of government scientists in Canada—53%—do not feel they can speak freely to the media about their work, even after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government eased restrictions on what they can say publicly, according to a survey released today by a union that represents more than 16,000 federal scientists.

That union—the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) based in Ottawa—conducted the survey last summer, a little more than a year and a half into the Trudeau government. It followed up on a similar survey the union released in 2013 at the height of the controversy over the then-Conservative government’s reported muzzling of scientists by preventing media interviews and curtailing travel to scientific conferences. The new survey found the situation much improved—in 2013, 90% of scientists felt unable to speak about their work. But the union says more work needs to be done. “The work needs to be done at the department level,” where civil servants may have been slow to implement political directives, PIPSC President Debi Daviau said. ”We need a culture change that promotes what we have heard from ministers.”

I found this a little chilling (from the PIPSC Defrosting Public Science; a 2017 survey of federal scientists webpage),

To better illustrate this concern, in 2013, The Big Chill revealed that 86% of respondents feared censorship or retaliation from their department or agency if they spoke out about a departmental decision or action that, based on their scientific knowledge, could bring harm to the public interest. In 2017, when asked the same question, 73% of respondents said they would not be able to do so without fear of censorship or retaliation – a mere 13% drop.

It’s possible things have improved but while the 2018 Senate report did not focus on scientists, it did highlight issues with the government’s openness and transparency or in their words: “… a culture that plays down bad news and avoids responsibility.” It seems the Senate is not the only group with concerns about government culture; so do the government’s employees (the scientists, anyway).

The other science commentary

I can’t find any commentary or editorials about the latest ministerial changes or the mandate letters on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website so was doubly pleased to find this December 6, 2019 commentary by Creso Sá for University Affairs,

The recently announced Liberal cabinet brings what appear to be cosmetic changes to the science file. Former Science Minister Kirsty Duncan is no longer in it, which sparked confusion among casual observers who believed that the elimination of her position signalled the termination of the science ministry or the downgrading of the science agenda. In reality, science was and remains part of the renamed Ministry of Innovation, Science, and (now) Industry (rather than Economic Development), where Minister Navdeep Bains continues at the helm.

Arguably, these reactions show that appearances have been central [emphasis mine] to the modus operandi of this government. Minister Duncan was an active, and generally well-liked, champion for the Trudeau government’s science platform. She carried the torch of team science over the last four years, becoming vividly associated with the launch of initiatives such as the Fundamental Science Review, the creation of the chief science advisor position, and the introduction of equity provisions in the Canada Research Chairs program. She talked a good talk, but her role did not in fact give her much authority to change the course of science policy in the country. From the start, her mandate was mostly defined around building bridges with members of cabinet, which was likely good experience for her new role of deputy house leader.

Upon the announcement of the new cabinet, Minister Bains took to Twitter to thank Dr. Duncan for her dedication to placing science in “its rightful place back at the centre of everything our government does.” He indicated that he will take over her responsibilities, which he was already formally responsible for. Presumably, he will now make time to place science at the centre of everything the government does.

This kind of sloganeering has been common [emphasis mine] since the 2015 campaign, which seems to be the strategic moment the Liberals can’t get out of. Such was the real and perceived hostility of the Harper Conservatives to science that the Liberals embraced the role of enlightened advocates. Perhaps the lowest hanging fruit their predecessors left behind was the sheer absence of any intelligible articulation of where they stood on the science file, which the Liberals seized upon with gusto. Virtue signalling [emphasis mine] became a first line of response.

When asked about her main accomplishments over the past year as chief science advisor at the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, Mona Nemer started with the creation of a network of science advisors across government departments. Over the past four years, the government has indeed not been shy about increasing the number of appointments with “science” in their job titles. That is not a bad thing. We just do not hear much about how “science is at the centre of everything the government does.” Things get much fuzzier when the conversation turns to the bold promises of promoting evidence-based decision making that this government has been vocal about. Queried on how her role has impacted policy making, Dr. Nemer suggested the question should be asked to politicians. [emphasis mine]

I’m tempted to describe the ‘Digital Government’ existence and portfolio as virtue signalling.

Finally

There doesn’t seem to be all that much government interest in science or, even, technology for that matter. We have a ‘junior’ Minister of Science disappear so that science can become part of all the ministries. Frankly, I wish that science were integrated throughout all the ministries but when you consider the government culture, this move more easily lends itself to even less responsibility being taken by anyone. Take another look at the Canada’s Chief Science Advisor’s comment: “Queried on how her role has impacted policy making, Dr. Nemer suggested the question should be asked to politicians.” Meanwhile, we get a ‘junior Minister of Digital Government whose portfolio has the potential to affect Canadians of all ages and resident in Canada or not.

A ‘junior’ minister is not necessarily evil as Sá points out but I would like to see some indication that efforts are being made to shift the civil service culture and the attitude about how the government conducts its business and that the Minister of Digital Government will receive the resources and the respect she needs to do her job. I’d also like to see some understanding of how catastrophic a wrong move has already been and could be in the future along with options for how citizens are going to be making their way through this brave new digital government world and some options for fixing problems, especially the catastrophic ones.

*December 30, 2019 correction: After Scott Brison left his position as President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government in January 2019, Jane Philpott held the two positions until March 2019 when she left the Liberal Party. Carla Quatrough was acting head from March 4 – March 18, 2019 when Joyce Murray was appointed to the two positions which she held for eight months until November 2019 when, as I’ve noted, the ‘Minister of Digital Government’ was split from the ‘President of the Treasury Board’ appointment.

Announcing Canada’s Chief Science Advisor: Dr. Mona Nemer

Thanks to the Canadian Science Policy Centre’s September 26, 2017 announcement (received via email) a burning question has been answered,

After great anticipation, Prime Minister Trudeau along with Minister Duncan have announced Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer, [emphasis mine]  at a ceremony at the House of Commons. The Canadian Science Policy Centre welcomes this exciting news and congratulates Dr. Nemer on her appointment in this role and we wish her the best in carrying out her duties in this esteemed position. CSPC is looking forward to working closely with Dr. Nemer for the Canadian science policy community. Mehrdad Hariri, CEO & President of the CSPC, stated, “Today’s historic announcement is excellent news for science in Canada, for informed policy-making and for all Canadians. We look forward to working closely with the new Chief Science Advisor.”

In fulfilling our commitment to keep the community up to date and informed regarding science, technology, and innovation policy issues, CSPC has been compiling all news, publications, and editorials in recognition of the importance of the Federal Chief Science Officer as it has been developing, as you may see by clicking here.

We invite your opinions regarding the new Chief Science Advisor, to be published on our CSPC Featured Editorial page. We will publish your reactions on our website, sciencepolicy.ca on our Chief Science Advisor page.

Please send your opinion pieces to editorial@sciencepolicy.ca.

Here are a few (very few) details from the Prime Minister’s (Justin Trudeau) Sept. 26, 2017 press release making the official announcement,

The Government of Canada is committed to strengthen science in government decision-making and to support scientists’ vital work.

In keeping with these commitments, the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, today announced Dr. Mona Nemer as Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor, following an open, transparent, and merit-based selection process.  

We know Canadians value science. As the new Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Nemer will help promote science and its real benefits for Canadians—new knowledge, novel technologies, and advanced skills for future jobs. These breakthroughs and new opportunities form an essential part of the Government’s strategy to secure a better future for Canadian families and to grow Canada’s middle class.

Dr. Nemer is a distinguished medical researcher whose focus has been on the heart, particularly on the mechanisms of heart failure and congenital heart diseases. In addition to publishing over 200 scholarly articles, her research has led to new diagnostic tests for heart failure and the genetics of cardiac birth defects. Dr. Nemer has spent more than ten years as the Vice-President, Research at the University of Ottawa, has served on many national and international scientific advisory boards, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a Member of the Order of Canada, and a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Québec.

As Canada’s new top scientist, Dr. Nemer will provide impartial scientific advice to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science. She will also make recommendations to help ensure that government science is fully available and accessible to the public, and that federal scientists remain free to speak about their work. Once a year, she will submit a report about the state of federal government science in Canada to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science, which will also be made public.

Quotes

“We have taken great strides to fulfill our promise to restore science as a pillar of government decision-making. Today, we took another big step forward by announcing Dr. Mona Nemer as our Chief Science Advisor. Dr. Nemer brings a wealth of expertise to the role. Her advice will be invaluable and inform decisions made at the highest levels. I look forward to working with her to promote a culture of scientific excellence in Canada.”
— The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

“A respect for science and for Canada’s remarkable scientists is a core value for our government. I look forward to working with Dr. Nemer, Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor, who will provide us with the evidence we need to make decisions about what matters most to Canadians: their health and safety, their families and communities, their jobs, environment and future prosperity.”
— The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science

“I am honoured and excited to be Canada’s Chief Science Advisor. I am very pleased to be representing Canadian science and research – work that plays a crucial role in protecting and improving the lives of people everywhere. I look forward to advising the Prime Minister and the Minister of Science and working with the science community, policy makers, and the public to make science part of government policy making.”
— Dr. Mona Nemer, Chief Science Advisor, Canada

Quick Facts

  • Dr. Nemer is also a Knight of the Order of Merit of the French Republic, and has been awarded honorary doctorates from universities in France and Finland.
  • The Office of the Chief Science Advisor will be housed at Innovation, Science and Economic Development and supported by a secretariat.

Nemers’ Wikipedia entry does not provide much additional information although you can find out a bit more on her University of Ottawa page. Brian Owens in a Sept. 26, 2017 article for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Science Magazine provides a bit more detail, about this newly created office and its budget

Nemer’s office will have a $2 million budget, and she will report to both Trudeau and science minister Kirsty Duncan. Her mandate includes providing scientific advice to government ministers, helping keep government-funded science accessible to the public, and protecting government scientists from being muzzled.

Ivan Semeniuk’s Sept. 26, 2017 article for the Globe and Mail newspaper about Nemer’s appointment is the most informative (that I’ve been able to find),

Mona Nemer, a specialist in the genetics of heart disease and a long time vice-president of research at the University of Ottawa, has been named Canada’s new chief science advisor.

The appointment, announced Tuesday [Sept. 26, 2017] by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, comes two years after the federal Liberals pledged to reinstate the position during the last election campaign and nearly a decade after the previous version of the role was cut by then prime minister Stephen Harper.

Dr. Nemer steps into the job of advising the federal government on science-related policy at a crucial time. Following a landmark review of Canada’s research landscape [Naylor report] released last spring, university-based scientists are lobbying hard for Ottawa to significantly boost science funding, one of the report’s key recommendations. At the same time, scientists and science-advocacy groups are increasingly scrutinizing federal actions on a range of sensitive environment and health-related issues to ensure the Trudeau government is making good on promises to embrace evidence-based decision making.

A key test of the position’s relevance for many observers will be the extent to which Dr. Nemer is able to speak her mind on matters where science may run afoul of political expediency.

Born in 1957, Dr. Nemer grew up in Lebanon and pursued an early passion for chemistry at a time and place where women were typically discouraged from entering scientific fields. With Lebanon’s civil war making it increasingly difficult for her to pursue her studies, her family was able to arrange for her to move to the United States, where she completed an undergraduate degree at Wichita State University in Kansas.

A key turning point came in the summer of 1977 when Dr. Nemer took a trip with friends to Montreal. She quickly fell for the city and, in short order, managed to secure acceptance to McGill University, where she received a PhD in 1982. …

It took a lot of searching to find out that Nemer was born in Lebanon and went to the United States first. A lot of immigrants and their families view Canada as a second choice and Nemer and her family would appear to have followed that pattern. It’s widely believed (amongst Canadians too) that the US is where you go for social mobility. I’m not sure if this is still the case but at one point in the 1980s Israel ranked as having the greatest social mobility in the world. Canada came in second while the US wasn’t even third or fourth ranked.

It’s the second major appointment by Justin Trudeau in the last few months to feature a woman who speaks French. The first was Julie Payette, former astronaut and Québecker, as the upcoming Governor General (there’s more detail and a whiff of sad scandal in this Aug. 21, 2017 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation online news item). Now there’s Dr. Mona Nemer who’s lived both in Québec and Ontario. Trudeau and his feminism, eh? Also, his desire to keep Québeckers happy (more or less).

I’m not surprised by the fact that Nemer has been based in Ottawa for several years. I guess they want someone who’s comfortable with the government apparatus although I for one think a little fresh air might be welcome. After all, the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, is from Toronto which between Nemer and Duncan gives us the age-old Canadian government trifecta (geographically speaking), Ottawa-Montréal-Toronto.

Two final comments, I am surprised that Duncan did not make the announcement. After all, it was in her 2015 mandate letter.But perhaps Paul Wells in his acerbic June 29, 2017 article for Macleans hints at the reason as he discusses the Naylor report (review of fundamental science mentioned in Semeniuk’s article and for which Nemer is expected to provide advice),

The Naylor report represents Canadian research scientists’ side of a power struggle. The struggle has been continuing since Jean Chrétien left office. After early cuts, he presided for years over very large increases to the budgets of the main science granting councils. But since 2003, governments have preferred to put new funding dollars to targeted projects in applied sciences. …

Naylor wants that trend reversed, quickly. He is supported in that call by a frankly astonishingly broad coalition of university administrators and working researchers, who until his report were more often at odds. So you have the group representing Canada’s 15 largest research universities and the group representing all universities and a new group representing early-career researchers and, as far as I can tell, every Canadian scientist on Twitter. All backing Naylor. All fundamentally concerned that new money for research is of no particular interest if it does not back the best science as chosen by scientists, through peer review.

The competing model, the one preferred by governments of all stripes, might best be called superclusters. Very large investments into very large projects with loosely defined scientific objectives, whose real goal is to retain decorated veteran scientists and to improve the Canadian high-tech industry. Vast and sprawling labs and tech incubators, cabinet ministers nodding gravely as world leaders in sexy trendy fields sketch the golden path to Jobs of Tomorrow.

You see the imbalance. On one side, ribbons to cut. On the other, nerds experimenting on tapeworms. Kirsty Duncan, a shaky political performer, transparently a junior minister to the supercluster guy, with no deputy minister or department reporting to her, is in a structurally weak position: her title suggests she’s science’s emissary to the government, but she is not equipped to be anything more than government’s emissary to science.

Second,  our other science minister, Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science  and Economic Development does not appear to have been present at the announcement. Quite surprising given where her office will located (from the government’s Sept. 26, 2017 press release in Quick Facts section ) “The Office of the Chief Science Advisor will be housed at Innovation, Science and Economic Development and supported by a secretariat.”

Finally, Wells’ article is well worth reading in its entirety and for those who are information gluttons, I have a three part series on the Naylor report, published June 8, 2017,

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 1 of 3

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 2 of 3

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 3 of 3

Canadian Science Policy Centre hosts panel discussion on April 18, 2017 about the April 22, 2017 US March for Science

Coming soon (April 22, 2017) to a city near you is a US ‘March for Science’. The big one will be held in Washington, DC but some 400 satellite marches are planned in cities across the US and around the world.

The Canadian Science Policy Centre has organized two panel discussions (one in Toronto and one in Ottawa) as a prelude to those cities’ marches,

A ‘March for Science’ is set to take place in over 400 locations around the world, including in Ottawa and Toronto, on April 22nd [2017]. The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) invites you to attend public panels discussing the implications of the march.

To RSVP for the Ottawa event [4:30 pm – 6 pm EDT], please click here

To RSVP for the Toronto event [4:30 – 6:30 pm EDT] please click here

The Ottawa panel features:

Paul Dufour

Paul Dufour is a Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy in the University of Ottawa and science policy Principal with PaulicyWorks in Gatineau, Québec. He is on the Board of Directors of the graduate student led Science Policy Exchange based in Montréal, and is member of the Investment Committee for Grand Challenges Canada. Paul Dufour has been senior advisor in science policy with several Canadian agencies and organizations over the course of the past 30 years. Among these: Senior Program Specialist with the International Development Research Centre, and interim Executive Director at the former Office of the National Science Advisor to the Canadian Government advising on international S&T matters and broad questions of R&D policy directions for the country. Mr. Dufour lectures regularly on science policy, has authored numerous articles on international S&T relations, and Canadian innovation policy. He is series co-editor of the Cartermill Guides to World Science and is the author of the Canada chapter for the UNESCO 2015 Science Report released in November 2015.

Dr. Kristin Baetz

Dr. Kristin Baetz is a Canada Research Chair in Chemical and Functional Genomics, Director of the Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology at uOttawa, President of the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences.

Katie Gibbs

Katie Gibbs is a scientist, community organizer and advocate for science and evidence-based policies. While completing her PhD at the University of Ottawa researching threats to endangered species, she was the lead organizer of the ‘Death of Evidence’ rally which was one of the largest science rallies in Canadian history. Katie is a co-founder and Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, a national, non-partisan, not-for- profit organization that promotes science integrity and the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making. She has a diverse background organizing and managing various causes and campaigns including playing an integral role in Elizabeth May’s winning election campaign in 2011. Katie is frequently asked to comment on science policy issues and has been quoted and published in numerous media outlets, including the CBC, The Hill Times, the Globe and Mail and the National Post.

Professor Kathryn O’Hara

Professor Kathryn O’Hara has been a faculty member in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University since 2001. She is the first person to hold the School’s CTV Chair in Science Broadcast Journalism, the first such chair of its kind in anglophone Canada. A long-standing broadcast journalist, Professor O’Hara is the former consumer columnist with CBC’s Midday , a former co- anchor of CBC’s Newsday in Ottawa, and the former host of Later the Same Day , CBC Radio Toronto’s “drive-home” program. Her work has also appeared on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks and Ideas programs. Three years before coming to Carleton University, Professor O’Hara was an independent health and science producer for outlets such as RTE and CBC. She serves on the Science and Technology Advisory Boards for Environment Canada and Health Canada and chairs the EC panel on Environment and Health. She is an Associate Professor with the Carleton School of Journalism and Communication.

The Toronto panel is organized a little differently:

Canadian Science Policy Centre in collaboration with Ryerson University’s Faculty of Science presents a panel discussion on the ‘March for Science’. Join us for coffee/tea and light refreshment at 4:00pm followed by the panel discussion at 4:30pm.

Light reception sponsored by Ryerson University’s Faculty of Science

Dr. Imogen Coe

Dr. Imogen R. Coe is currently the Dean of the Faculty of Science at Ryerson University. Imogen possesses a doctorate (Ph.D.) and masters degree in Biology from the University of Victoria, B.C. and a bachelor’s degree from Exeter University in the U.K.  She is an affiliate scientist with Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, Keenan Research Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital which is where her research program is located.  She is an accomplished cell biologist and is internationally known for her work on membrane transport proteins (transporters) that are the route of entry into cells for a large class of anti-cancer, anti-viral and anti-parasite drugs.  She has served on NSERC, CIHR and NCIC scientific review panels and continues to supervise research projects of undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and research associates in her group. More about her research can be found  at her research website.

Mehrdad Hariri

Mehrdad Hariri is the founder and CEO of Canadian Science Policy Centre. The Centre is becoming the HUB for science technology and innovation policy in the country. He established the first national annual Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), a forum dedicated to the Canadian Science Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy issues. The Conference engages stakeholders from the science and innovation field, academia and government in discussions of policy issues at the intersection of science and society. Now in its 9th year, CSPC has become the most comprehensive national forum on science and innovation policy issues.

Dr. Jim Woodgett

In his dual roles as Investigator and Director of Research of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Dr. Jim Woodgett applies his visionary approach to research into the manipulation of cell processes to treat certain cancers, diabetes and neurodegenerative conditions, and to ensuring that discoveries made by the world-renowned Institute are applied to patient care. Dr. Woodgett is interested in the causes and treatment of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer Disease and bipolar disorder. What links this apparently broad range of diseases is their common basis in disruption of the lines of communication within the cells, or the signalling pathways. By studying the ways in which components of these pathways are mutated and transformed by disease, Dr. Woodgett can identify new and more effective therapeutic targets. Study of the WNT pathway, which contains a number of genes which account for about 90% of human colon cancer, is a particular area of interest. Recent advancements made by Dr. Woodgett’s team in adult stem cell division pave the way for scientists to harvest large quantities of these specialized cells which hold great promise for the treatment and cure of life- threatening illnesses.

Margrit Eichler

Margrit Eichler is Professor emerita of Sociology and Equity Studies at OISE/UT. Her over 200 publications deal, among other topics, with feminist methodology, gender issues, public health, environmental issues, and paid and unpaid work. She is a fellow Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the European Academy of Sciences. Since her retirement, she has been active in various citizens’ organizations, including as Secretary of Science for Peace and as President of the advocacy group Our Right to Know.

Ivan Semeniuk [science writer for Globe & Mail newspaper]

Dan Weaver

Dan Weaver is a Ph.D. candidate at the U of T Dept. of Physics. His research involves collecting and analyzing atmospheric measurements taken at the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. He is also involved in the validation of satellites such as Canada’s Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment.In 2012, Dan was at PEARL for fieldwork when the federal government cut science funding that supported PEARL and other research programs across the country. He started a campaign called Save PEARL to advocate for continued funding for climate and Arctic atmospheric research. Dan joined Evidence for Democracy to advocate for science and evidence-based decision-making in 2013 and is a member of its Board of Directors. Dan is also a member of the Toronto March for Science organizing committee.

Toronto tickets are going faster than Ottawa tickets.

I’m feeling just a bit indignant; there are not just two Canadian satellite marches as you might expect given how this notice is written up. There are 18! Eight provinces are represented with marches in Calgary (Alberta), Montréal (Québec), Prince George (British Columbia), Vancouver (British Columbia), Edmonton (Alberta), Winnipeg (Manitoba), Halifax (Nova Scotia), London (Ontario), Windsor (Ontario),  Hamilton (Ontario), Ottawa (Ontario), Toronto (Ontario), Victoria (British Columbia), Lethbridge (Alberta), St. John’s (Newfoundland and Labrador), Kitchener-Waterloo (Ontario), Sudbury (Ontario), and Saskatoon (Saskatchewan). Honestly, these folks in Ontario seem to have gotten quite insular. In any event, you can figure out how to join in by clicking here.

For those who might appreciate some cogent insight into the current science situation in the US (and an antidote to what I suspect will be a great deal of self-congratulation on these April 18, 2017 CSPC panels), there’s an April 14, 2017 article by Jason Lloyd for Slate.com (Note: Links have been removed),

The most prominent response to the situation will come April 22 [2017], as science advocates—including members of major organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—“walk out of the lab and into the streets” for the first-ever March for Science. Modeled in part on January’s record-breaking Women’s March, organizers have planned a march in Washington and satellite marches in more than 400 cities across six continents. The March for Science is intended to be the largest assemblage of science advocates in history.

Too bad it will likely undermine their cause.

The goals of organizers and participants are varied and worthy, but its critics—most prominently the president himself—will smear the march as simply anti-Trump or anti-Republican partisanship. Whether that’s true is beside the point, and scientists who are keen to participate ought to do so without worrying that they’re sullying their objectivity. The many communities distressed by the actions of this administration should of course exercise their right to protest, and the March for Science may inspire deeper social and political engagement.

But participants must understand that the social and political context in which this march takes place means that it cannot produce the outcomes intended by its organizers. The officially nonpartisan march embodies in miniature the larger challenges that confront the scientific enterprise in its relationship with a society that’s undergoing profound and often distressing changes.

Let’s start by looking at what the largest representative of the scientific community, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, intends by endorsing the march. According to the AAAS’s statement of support, the march will help:

…  protect the rights of scientists to pursue and communicate their inquiries unimpeded, expand the placement of scientists throughout the government, build public policies upon scientific evidence, and support broad educational efforts to expand public understanding of the scientific process.

In other words, scientists want support for instructing—not involving—the public in the scientific process, a greater influence on policymaking, and no political accountability. That’s a pretty audacious power play, and it’s easy to see how critics might cast the march’s intent as a privileged group seeking to protect and enhance its privileges. The thing is, they wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

As science policy journalist Colin Macilwain points out in Nature, scientists and other members of the technocratic class have generally enjoyed stable, middle-class employment and society’s respect and admiration for most of the past 70 years. They have benefited from scientific and technological progress while mostly remaining insulated from the collateral damage wrought by creative destruction. Federal funding has remained generous under progressive and conservative governments and through economic booms and busts. Scientists possess a variety of relatively comfortable perches from which they can express their ideas and shape public policy.

But there are a lot of people to whom the past seven decades have not been nearly so kind. They’ve struggled to find and keep well-paying jobs in a world in which technological advancement has decoupled economic growth from employment opportunities. They’ve lost a sense of having their voices heard in policymaking, as governance and regulation becomes increasingly complex. To see a select group of people and institutions profit from this complexity has, understandably, bred resentment throughout post-industrial countries.

So what should scientists do to safeguard and support their community instead? A good first step would be to acknowledge the scope and depth of the problem. The biggest issue confronting science is not a malicious and incompetent executive, or a research enterprise that might receive less generous funding than it’s enjoyed in the past. The critical challenge—and one that will still be relevant long after Donald Trump has gone back to making poor real estate decisions—is figuring out how scientists can build an enduring relationship with all segments of the American public, so that discounting, defunding, or vilifying scientists’ important work is politically intolerable.

This does not excuse whatever appalling policies Trump will no doubt seek to implement, against which scientists should speak out forcefully in the language of public values like free speech. They did this successfully against requests for the names of Department of Energy employees who attended U.N. climate talks and the clampdown on federal agencies’ external communications. But over the longer term, scientists need to improve their connection to the public and articulate their importance to society in a way that resonates with all Americans.

Academia can also challenge the insularity of scientific practice (and not just in the sciences). Instead of an overriding focus on publishing and grants, renewed attention to teaching could train more students in academic rigor and critical appraisal of, among other things, the false claims of a populist demagogue. With research universities scattered throughout the country, academics should be incentivized to improve ties with people who might otherwise consider scientists to be condescending eggheads who only give them bad news about the climate or the economy. University medical centers and military bases provide great models for these types of strong local relationships.

Finally, scientists and technologists must also attend to the social implications of their research. This includes anticipating and mitigating the socioeconomic effects of their innovations (here’s looking at you, Silicon Valley) by allocating resources to address problems they may exacerbate, such as inequality and job loss. The high-level discussion around CRISPR, the revolutionary gene-editing technology, is a good example of both the opportunity for and difficulty of responsible innovation. This process might be made more effective by bringing the public into scientific practice and policymaking using the tools of citizen science and deliberative democracy, rather than simply telling people what scientists are doing or explaining what policymakers have already decided.

If you have the time, please read Lloyd’s piece in its entirety. The piece has certainly generated a fair number of comments (121 when I last looked).

I have run a couple of posts which feature some well-meaning advice for our southern neighbours from Canadians along with my suggestion that they might not be as helpful as we hope.

Jan. 27, 2017 posting (scroll down past the internship announcement, about 15% of the way down)

Feb. 13, 2017 posting

Canadian Science Policy Conference inaugurates Lecture Series: Science Advice in a Troubled World

The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) launched a lecture series on Monday, Jan. 16, 2017 with Sir Peter Gluckman as the first speaker in a talk titled, Science Advice in a Troubled World. From a Jan. 18, 2017 CSPC announcement (received via email),

The inaugural session of the Canadian Science Policy Lecture Series was hosted by ISSP [University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science Society and Policy (ISSP)] on Monday January 16th [2017] at the University of Ottawa. Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand gave a presentation titled “Science Advise [sic] in a troubled world”. For a summary of the event, video and pictures please visit the event page.  

The session started with speeches by Monica Gattiner, Director, Institute for Science, Society and Policy, Jacques Frémont, President of the University of Ottawa as well as Mehrdad Hariri, CEO and President of the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC).

The talk itself is about 50 mins. but there are lengthy introductions, including a rather unexpected (by me) reference to the recent US election from the president of the University of Ottawa, Jacques Frémont (formerly the head of Québec’s Human Rights Commission, where the talk was held. There was also a number of questions after the talk. So, the running time for the video 1 hr. 12 mins.

Here’s a bit more information about Sir Peter, from the Science Advice in a Troubled World event page on the CSPC website,

Sir Peter Gluckman ONZ FRS is the first Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, having been appointed in 2009. He is also science envoy and advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He is chair of the International Network of Government Science Advice (INGSA), which operates under the aegis of the international Council of Science (ICSU). He chairs the APEC Chief Science Advisors and Equivalents group and is the coordinator of the secretariat of Small Advanced Economies Initiative.  In 2016 he received the AAAS award in Science Diplomacy. He trained as a pediatric and biomedical scientist and holds a Distinguished University Professorship at the Liggins Institute of the University of Auckland. He has published over 700 scientific papers and several technical and popular science books. He has received the highest scientific (Rutherford medal) and civilian (Order of New Zealand, limited to 20 living persons) honours in NZ and numerous international scientific awards. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, a member of the National Academy of Medicine (USA) and a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (UK).

I listened to the entire video and Gluckman presented a thoughtful, nuanced lecture in which he also mentioned Calestous Juma and his 2016 book, Innovation and Its Enemies (btw, I will be writing a commentary about Juma’s extraordinary effort). He also referenced the concepts of post-truth and post-trust, and made an argument for viewing evidence-based science as part of the larger policymaking process rather than the dominant or only factor. From the Science Advice in a Troubled World event page,

Lecture Introduction

The world is facing many challenges from environmental degradation and climate change to global health issues, and many more.  Societal relationships are changing; sources of information, reliable and otherwise, and their transmission are affecting the nature of public policy.

Within this context the question arises; how can scientific advice to governments help address these emerging issues in a more unstable and uncertain world?
The relationship between science and politics is complex and the challenges at their interface are growing. What does scientific advice mean within this context?
How can science better inform policy where decision making is increasingly made against a background of post-truth polemic?

I’m not in perfect agreement with Gluckman with regard to post-truth as I have been influenced by an essay of Steve Fuller’s suggesting that science too can be post-truth. (Fuller’s essay was highlighted in my Jan. 6, 2017 posting.)

Gluckman seems to be wielding a fair amount of influence on the Canadian scene. This is his second CSPC visit in the last few months. He was an invited speaker at the Eighth Annual CSPC conference in November 2016 and, while he’s here in Jan. 2017, he’s chairing the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) International Panel on Peer Review. (The CIHR is one of Canada’s three major government funding agencies for the sciences.)

In other places too, he’s going to be a member of a panel at the University of Oxford Martin School in later January 2017. From the “Is a post-truth world a post-expert world?” event page on the Oxford Martin webspace,

Winston Churchill advised that “experts should be on tap but never on top”. In 2017, is a post-truth world a post-expert world? What does this mean for future debates on difficult policy issues? And what place can researchers usefully occupy in an academic landscape that emphasises policy impact but a political landscape that has become wary of experts? Join us for a lively discussion on academia and the provision of policy advice, examining the role of evidence and experts and exploring how gaps with the public and politicians might be bridged.

This event will be chaired by Achim Steiner, Director of the Oxford Martin School and former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, with panellists including Oxford Martin Visiting Fellow Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand and Chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice; Dr Gemma Harper, Deputy Director for Marine Policy and Evidence and Chief Social Scientist in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and Professor Stefan Dercon, Chief Economist of the Department for International Development (DFID) and Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government.

This discussion will be followed by a drinks reception, all welcome.

Here are the logistics should you be lucky enough to be able to attend (from the event page),

25 January 2017 17:00 – 18:15

Lecture Theatre, Oxford Martin School

34 Broad Street (corner of Holywell and Catte Streets)
Oxford
OX1 3BD

Registration ((right hand column) is free.

Finally, Gluckman has published a paper on the digital economy as of Nov. 2016, which can be found here (PDF).

Science diplomacy: a brief examination of the art as practiced in the US, UK, and Canada

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) announced its new quarterly publication about Science Diplomacy, Cultures in a Jan. 13, 2014 news release found on EurekAlert,

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) announces a new quarterly publication, Cultures, that explores the intersection of science, policy, and the global challenges we all share by bringing diverse voices to a common platform.

Each issue will feature articles and interviews focused around a central global theme. The inaugural issue explores the question, “What is the role of scientists in addressing today’s global challenges?” Drs. Bruce Alberts, John Holdren, and Gebisa Ejeta speak from their unique perspectives on diplomacy, climate change, and food security. In addition to these pieces, the issue features an interview with past ASM President Dr. Jo Handelsman, an essay by eight ASM Young Ambassadors of Science, and a sister society contribution by the American Chemical Society.

While the American Society for Microbiology wouldn’t be my first guess if asked which organization might publish a journal focused on science and diplomacy, I find it intriguing and you can find this new open access journal here.

For anyone who’s not entirely certain what the term ‘science diplomacy’ entails, there’s this description on Wikipedia (Note: Links have been removed),

Science diplomacy is the use of scientific collaborations among nations to address common problems and to build constructive international partnerships. Many experts and groups use a variety of definitions for science diplomacy. However, science diplomacy has become an umbrella term to describe a number of formal or informal technical, research-based, academic or engineering exchanges.

In January 2010, the Royal Society [UK] and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)[7] noted that “science diplomacy” refers to three main types of activities:

“Science in diplomacy”: Science can provide advice to inform and support foreign policy objectives.
“Diplomacy for science”: Diplomacy can facilitate international scientific cooperation.
“Science for diplomacy”: Scientific cooperation can improve international relations.

Before the term science diplomacy was coined, such initiatives—-in the United States—were often called “smart power” or “soft power” by those in the field. The term, “soft power,” was coined by Joseph Nye of Harvard University in a 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power.[8] In an editorial in the Washington Post that he cowrote with Richard Armitage, he said, “In a changing world, the United States should become a smarter power by once again investing in the global good — by providing things that people and governments want but cannot attain without U.S. leadership. By complementing U.S. military and economic strength with greater investments in soft power, Washington can build the framework to tackle tough global challenges.”[9] His notion of “smart power” became popular with the term’s use by members of the Clinton administration, and more recently the Obama Administration. However, the Obama Administration also uses the term science diplomacy.[10]

The AAAS has a Center for Science Diplomacy which amongst other activities publishes a quarterly journal, Science & Diplomacy. For a perspective on science diplomacy as practiced in the US, there’s a very interesting Aug. 23, 2013 Guardian blog post by Audra J. Wolfe, writer, editor and historian based in Philadelphia, (Note: Links have been removed),

The Obama Administration has embraced the concept of science diplomacy as a way to bridge cultural and economic gaps between the United States and the rest of the world. The director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, John P Holdren, regularly meets with his science policy counterparts from Brazil, China, India, Japan, Korea and Russia. The US State Department has sent a series of American scientists abroad as “Science Envoys” in hopes of using scientific relationships as an olive branch to the Muslim world. Since 2009, these science envoys, acting as private citizens, have collectively visited almost 20 countries, including Indonesia, Morocco, Bangladesh, Kazahkstan and pre-revolution Egypt.

This new interest in science diplomacy is at least partially explained by the nature of contemporary global problems: issues of resource distribution, climate change, and uneven economic growth can only be solved with input from science. …

Wolfe also notes this,

But science diplomacy programmes also draw on a long tradition that holds science and scientists as uniquely qualified to spread American ideals. In the 1960s (the last time that the United States made a sustained effort to use science diplomacy to build international partnerships), the concept was marred by ties to propaganda campaigns and intelligence operations.

Her discussion of what happened in the 1960s vis à vis science diplomacy is well worth reading especially as she points to some unfortunate parallels with the current efforts (Note: Links have been removed),

The Obama administration’s resurrection of the concept of science diplomacy offers enormous potential. But, once again, the intelligence establishment has found in science diplomacy a convenient cover for its own needs. The CIA’s use of a fake vaccination campaign in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the subsequent withdrawal of aid workers from Pakistan over fears for their safety, are all too familiar. Once again, covert operations are threatening to derail genuinely helpful, hopeful activities that might otherwise go a long way toward building international goodwill.

For all that Wolfe critiques past and present efforts, she does end with a hopeful exhortation, “This time, science diplomacy is worth doing right.”

As part of the US science diplomacy efforts, the current US administration has  been appointing science envoys. The latest batch are (according to a Nov. 8, 2012 US State Department news release,

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton today, at an event on Wildlife Trafficking and Conservation: A Call to Action, announced the appointment of three new science envoys: Professor Bernard Amadei, Professor Susan Hockfield, and Professor Barbara Schaal.

These preeminent scientists will seek to deepen existing ties, foster new relationships with foreign counterparts and discuss potential areas of collaboration that will help address global challenges and realize shared goals. The Science Envoys travel in their capacity as private citizens and advise the White House, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. scientific community about the insights they gain from their travels and interactions.

The Science Envoy program demonstrates the United States continued commitment to science, technology, and innovation as tools of diplomacy. As Secretary Clinton stated in her remarks at a Department event, Wildlife Trafficking and Conservation: A Call to Action, “Building scientific partnerships is an important tool in addressing such global challenges. …

These three scientists represent the third cohort of Science Envoys since the program’s inception in 2009. Previous cohorts have visited 19 countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan.

Dr. Bernard Amadei holds the Mortenson Endowed Chair in Global Engineering and is Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Having earned his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley his main research and teaching interests have focused on rock mechanics and engineering geology. Among his many distinctions, Dr. Amadei is the founding president of Engineers Without Borders and is an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

Dr. Susan Hockfield has served recently as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she remains on the Neuroscience faculty. She also serves as the Marie Curie Visiting Professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. She earned her Ph.D. at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and has focused her research on brain development and a specific form of brain cancer. Dr. Hockfield has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Barbara Schaal earned her Ph.D. in biology from Yale University and is the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor at the Washington University in St. Louis in the Department of Biology. She is recognized for her work in evolutionary biology, particularly for studies that use DNA sequences to understand evolutionary biology. She holds the distinction of being the first woman elected to the vice presidency of the National Academy of Sciences and is a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

While the US science diplomacy effort seems to have its beginnings in the 1960s, the effort in the UK appears to be altogether newer as David D. Clary, former chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office ,writes in his Sept. 2013 article for Science & Diplomacy,

On March 29, 2009, I heard the prime minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown, give the Romanes Lecture in the historic Sheldonian Theatre at the University of Oxford. Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill are among those who have given this highly prestigious lecture. Brown chose the title “Science and Our Economic Future.” He gave the lecture in the middle of the economic crisis and he stated that “it is science above all that can give us hope.” He also announced that he was creating a new role of chief scientific adviser (CSA) to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), who would be involved in “bringing science to international policy making and diplomacy.”

A few days later, a search agency asked me if I would be interested in becoming this first CSA.

While this specific post seems to be relatively new, there is a longstanding tradition within the UK government of having science advisers for specific departments so this to be an extension of their ongoing science advice programmes into the realm of foreign affairs.

As for Clary and the new role, he notes that is was a part-time position and in common with his US counterparts he traveled throughout the world (from the article)

I was delighted to be able to work with the UK Science and Innovation Network, which is a unique organization placing about ninety officers in UK embassies and high commissions in twenty-five countries. The network is involved with enhancing international relations through scientific collaborations between the UK and other countries. I was pleased to champion this organization’s excellent work and made visits to eighteen countries to promote its various projects. Scientific interactions with emerging economies were a priority. In Istanbul I launched a new Knowledge Partnership between the UK and Turkey together with Vince Cable, the UK secretary of state for business innovation and skills. In similar visits to Delhi, Medellín, Nanjing, Ottawa, Singapore, and other cities, I saw exciting collaborative scientific initiatives across the continents.

Amongst his many other activities, Clary visited Ottawa (Canada). From an April 17, 2012 posting on Nicole Arbour’s UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Ottawa) blog (Note: Links have been removed),

Prof. David Clary (his blog), Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) recently visited Ottawa, on the invitation of the Office of the Auditor General(@OAG_BVG) to participate in a Science Forum, looking at how science can be used to better inform policy, in times of austerity.

Part of this involved discussions of how science advice to government was done in the UK, and the role of CSAs in advising the UK government during the recent budget reforms.  The overall event went very well and was attended by an excellent cast of Canadian science and policy characters ….

Here’s a video of David Clary discussing his trip to Ottawa in 2012 (from Arbour’s April 17, 2012 posting),

I was not able to find any additional details about Clary’s visit although I do note his mention of marine resources and future UK/Canada efforts in the context of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Dec. 9, 2013 online news item about science diplomacy and the Arctic,

Arctic claim process melds science, diplomacy
At issue is claim to oil and gas in seabed under Arctic continental shelf

Canada filed its claim for a portion of the continental shelf under the Arctic Ocean with the UN Conventional on the Law of the Sea on Friday.  The problem is that other countries, including Russia, Denmark and Norway, are making the same claims to parts of the seabed that could be a rich source  of resources.

All the parties involved have said they will follow international law and they’ve agreed that science must underlie the process. One of the roles of the UN commission will be to doublecheck the science that each country has submitted and then there is much diplomacy and negotiation ahead.

Then all the parties making claims have pledged to negotiate in good faith and  in a timely manner over this vast swath of territory, most of it covered with ice yearround.

“We know that you can have the best kinds of international law, best processes set out, but politics often intervene and that’s of course, what everyone is most concerned about in this contest,” Huebert [Rob Huebert,associate director at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary] said.

Huebert said it would be foolish for environmental groups to object to this process on the grounds that oil and gas exploration should not take place in Arctic waters.

Too many other countries want a piece of Arctic resources and Canada can only protect the region if its claim holds up, he said.

If you don’t establish boundaries over who owns the soil and subsoil, then what happens when some of these other countries that are a very interested in the region – like China, South Korea, Japan, would you then start having a free-for-all,” he said.

While the CBC news item does not mention the UK in this context, China, Korea, Japan, India, Singapore, and Italy all received observer status to the intergovernmental group the Arctic Council in May 2013 according to a May 16, 2013 article by Alex Blackburne for blueandgreentomorrow.com,

China, Japan and South Korea are among six countries that have this week been granted observer status within intergovernmental group the Arctic Council.

The organisation, whose only members are Iceland, Norway, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the US, has previously not allowed non-northern regions to join.

But the promotion of the three Asian nations – as well as India, Singapore and Italy – to observer status signals a change in strategy.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch”, said Norwegian foreign minister Espen Barth Eide.

“By becoming an observer you’re also signing up to the principles embodied by this organisation, and that is why we have been working hard to make that happen.”

Experts say 13% of the world’s oil reserves are found in the Arctic, as well as 30% of as yet undiscovered gas deposits.

Getting back to the UK science diplomacy effort for a moment, Clary;s term as chief science adviser to the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has ended and there is a new appointee according to a Feb. 7, 2013 UK government news release,

Professor Robin Grimes has been appointed as the new Chief Scientific Adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, starting in February 2013.

Professor Grimes is currently Professor of Materials Physics at Imperial College, Director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College, and Director of the Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre for Nuclear Engineering. He is a Fellow of several learned societies including the Institution of Nuclear Engineers and the Institute of Physics.

As a nuclear energy specialist, Professor Grimes has advised the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into nuclear research requirements, and was part of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) which provided official advice on the 2011 Fukushima disaster. He has considerable experience of high-level international work with HMG science and policy colleagues, including overseas missions to Vietnam, Malaysia and Japan.
Working as part of a Whitehall network of Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers, and drawing on the support of the HMG Science and Innovation Network, the FCO Chief Scientific Adviser provides advice to the Foreign Secretary, Ministers and officials on science and innovation in foreign policy across the FCO’s three priorities (Prosperity, Security, Consular Services).

The FCO Chief Scientific Adviser enhances departmental capability to strengthen key policies with scientific evidence (e.g. around climate change and energy, counter-proliferation and polar regions), broadens the UK diplomatic contact network in the scientific community, and creates opportunities for constructive engagement with high-tech business in support of UK prosperity and growth.

As the UK has a science adviser who travels on behalf of its foreign office and the US sends out science envoys on behalf of the US government, Canada (despite the title of the CBC news item) does not have a comparable science diplomacy effort. After all the 5th annual Canadian Science Policy Conference (November 20 -22, 2013), advertised their Science Diplomacy workshop with these words,

This symposium is a first of its kind in Canada, and intends to initiate a dialogue on science diplomacy and raise awareness about its importance.

Canada has huge potential to become a global player in the area of science and technology. By mobilizing its resources in the area of science diplomacy, Canada can strengthen its position internationally and benefit both economically and politically.

With one of the most diverse scientific communities in the world, Canada has a huge potential to tap into this resource in order to:
•Increase its ties in science and technology with the international community
•Use its diaspora scientist communities as Canada’s science and innovation ambassadors
•Strengthen Canada’s global position as a powerhouse of science and technology

Canada will also benefit by learning from good practices in innovation through the expansion of science and technological interactions with other countries. This will also increase our footprint in international trade and entrepreneurial activities in science and technology.

The panels on the symposium include:
• Science Diplomacy; A Re-Emerging Concept
• Canadian Context of Science Diplomacy, What is the Stake for Canada?
• Scientific Research and International Affairs
• Diaspora Scientists and Grassroots Efforts in Science Diplomacy
• Bridging the ST/International Diplomacy Gap

Introduction: The notion of Science Diplomacy 8:45 – 9:00
Vaughan Turekian [Chief International Officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)]

Adventures of Science Diplomacy 9:00 – 9:45
Peter Singer [CEO Grand Challenges Canada]

Coffee Break 9:45 – 10:00

Scientific Collaboration, taste of diplomacy 10:00 11:45

Halla Thorsteinsdottir: North South South Collaboration
Yvon Martel; China Canada Collaboration in Agriculture
Rabiz Foda; Canada US India Collaboration

Lunch 11:45 – 12:45

Grassroots, Diaspora Scientists 12:45 – 1:45
Raju Goteti, Indian Canadian Scientists
Rees Kassen, Academy of Young Scientists
Mehrdad Hariri [President and CEO Canadian Science Policy Centre]

Vision for Science Diplomacy 1:45 – 2:45
Vaughan Turekian, Paul Dufour [Principal PaulicyWorks]

There are two things that strike me about the Canadian effort (1) it’s being overtly initiated by Canadian scientists whereas the current UK and US efforts seem to have been initiated by their respective governments and (2) it’s at a very early stage.