6th Canadian Science Policy Conference – Highlights

cspc2014The Canadian Science Policy Conference was held for the first time in Atlantic Canada on 15-17 October 2014 in Halifax, NS. The conference did not focus on a single special theme, but was organized as a forum consisting of a number of panels and invited speakers who discussed aspects of the current Canadian science-policy environment (see cspc2014.ca). Here, I describe highlights of three sessions that I attended.

Panel 2, on “Big Problems, Big Networks, Big Data,” addressed the role and success, or not, of large, multi-disciplinary research networks, e.g., MEOPAR (Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network), OTN (Ocean Tracking Network), and CCRN (Changing Cold Regions Network). It was very unclear from the discussions as to the value of such networks for efficiently producing new scientific breakthroughs and useful data and information. As has been shown many times historically in science, small programs can be a better investment of time and scarce fiscal resources. Fred Whoriskey, Executive Director of OTN, gave an honest appraisal of such networks, mentioning the large administrative load, considerable expense, and difficulty in moving data towards policy applications and decision making. With the exception of OTN, the programs seem to be “lots of show, little value, or poor value for money.” As well, sharing data, continuing the programs, and linking the networks are big challenges. Identification of metrics to assess success is also elusive. In summary, the panel gave valuable insight into the conduct and output of large scientific research networks.

The plenary session “An Audit for Science. Really?” was very worthwhile attending. Julie Gelfand, the new federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in the Office of the Auditor General of Canada, stated clearly that her office prepared reports for Parliament and its politicians, but that in this context, she needs advice about the science her office should be concerned with. Several big current issues for her office include climate change, the oil sands in Alberta, the Arctic (e.g., navigation), monitoring related to SEAs (Strategic Environmental Assessments) and the CEEA (Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance), and the role of Environment Canada beyond 2015. The panel members seemed unclear as to how to audit public government science being conducted in support of monitoring and assessment programs. Several key points made during the discussion included: the need for a motivated, well managed, and first-rate government science capacity; Canada’s participation in global research and knowledge networks; recognition for our areas of excellence; recognition that the world (including young people) is interested in problems and solutions, not topics or disciplines; that “the future is invented, not predicted”; and that a need exists to identify the source documents behind the policies and commitments for government science.

Panel 11 on “Communication and Collaboration – Government Science as a Partner for Innovation” was quite informative but also quite disheartening. First, it was made clear that the current federal government has been and is drastically cutting government (public service) science, by 6000 FTEs (full term equivalents), mostly in primary research. In particular, the National Research Council’s role in science is being changed from a producer of basic and applied science to a seller/entrepreneur of “science.” The panelists were extremely critical of these actions, emphasizing that government science is needed for informed, long-term policies, and the safety and well-being of Canadians. They emphasized that government scientists set the bounds around policy discussions, serve the public, and ensure that successive governments have a social conscience.

To summarize, it was clear that this Conference series has changed its orientation from being a true science-policy conference to one of discussions of technology-(so-called) innovation-business application and linkages. This orientation fits with the current federal government’s primary emphasis on economic development and employment rather than a strong federal public service involved in science focussed on discovery and regulatory matters. All of the panelists in the sessions I attended were dismayed about the current direction of public science in Canada (but were uniformly too diplomatic in their comments). The focus of the conference on applications and innovation, while diminishing discussions of essential policies for long term basic research in the public service, is in my opinion truly unfortunate for Canada and Canadians.

Author: P. G. Wells