Scientists lament closing of key advisory office
Members of Canada's scientific community praised the contributions of the national science adviser and expressed regret over the government's decision to phase out the position at the end of March.
On Wednesday, Industry Canada confirmed that national science adviser Arthur Carty would be retiring on March 31, and that the position and office would be phased out.
John Smol, a leading ecology professor and researcher with Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said he found the news "troubling and worrisome."
"Having someone in a position to advise the prime minister or a cabinet minister gave me more confidence in the process," Smol said. "There's so little of this contact between the scientific community and politicians. If you remove one of those major contacts, I don't see it as a positive thing."
Andrew Miall, the president of the Academy of Science of the Royal Society of Canada, said the society did not wish to comment on the government's decision. But the University of Toronto geologist, speaking as an individual fellow of the society, said in an e-mail he thought "it unfortunate that a line of communication between the scientific community and the government is to be closed off."
Carty was originally appointed to the role of national science adviser by Prime Minister Paul Martin on April 1, 2004. Carty, who previously held positions as president of the National Research Council and dean of research at the University of Waterloo, was tasked with providing advice on global science and technology issues and how government can better support and benefit from science conducted in-house.
Carty is credited with helping the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Academy of Engineering and the Canadian Institute of Academic Medicine create a new organization, formerly known as the Canadian Academies of Science but renamed the Council of Canadian Academies in 2006. The council's mandate is to act as a "source of independent, expert assessment of the science underlying pressing issues and matters of public interest."
Council president Peter Nicholson issued a statement acknowledging the "the tremendous contribution that Dr. Carty has made towards the creation of the Council" and praising his "selfless dedication to scientific research and development."
"I wish Dr. Carty the best, and hope that we can continue to benefit from his wise advice in the future," Nicholson said.
In a letter to Industry Minister Jim Prentice, Carty said he would be retiring March 31, the end of the fiscal year.
Industry Canada said in a statement that with the establishment of the Science, Technology and Innovation Council in May 2007, the government reviewed a number of federal advisory bodies and decided to phase out the office and the role of national science adviser.
The Science, Technology and Innovation Council is a mix of scientists, private sector executives, government administrators and university chancellors whose mandate is to provide policy advice on science and technology issues and produce "regular national reports that measure Canada's science and technology performance against international standards of excellence," Industry Canada said when announcing the council.
Smol said the role of national science adviser served a different purpose and can't simply be replaced.
"All of these groups are different fish," he said. "The Council of Canadian Academies is more of a think-tank, an organization to conduct longer assessments of issue, and the new council sounds like a different animal as well." The science adviser, on the other hand, was potentially someone who could meet one-on-one with top policy makers, he said.
Smol said since most scientific research in Canada is funded through taxpayer support, the government should be adding more lines of communication between policy makers and researchers, not fewer.
"I don't think enough science is being involved in decision making and policy making as it is," Smol said.