No science in the PM’s ear: Canada dismisses National Science Adviser at its peril

By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks.

The one scientist in this country who had direct access to the Prime Minister is being dismissed. Canada’s National Science Adviser, Dr. Arthur Carty, was appointed by former Prime Minister Paul Martin to provide expert advice on the government’s role in matters of science and science policy. Now, less than four years after the position was created, the Harper government feels that it’s no longer necessary.

The National Science Adviser is a voice of reason to the government over actions it should take on issues such as climate change, genetically modified foods, managing fisheries, sustaining the environment - any time the politicians need to be educated on the basic science behind those often controversial issues. Of course, decisions are seldom made for purely scientific reasons; all too often, the interests of industry, special interest groups or a misinformed public will cloud the scientific truth. The Adviser’s job is to provide clarity and perspective.

Dr. Carty is extremely well qualified for this position. He was president of the National Research Council for 10 years and a prominent professor at Waterloo University for 27 years, among other accomplishments.

Eliminating the National Science Adviser is the latest in a string of events showing how our current government, at least at the top level, does not seem to be interested in the scientific perspective.

Soon after taking power, the Harper government moved the National Science Adviser position from the Privy Council Office down to Industry Canada, where Dr. Carty reports to the Minister there instead of directly to the PM. Following that, our Prime Minister embarrassed the country internationally by backing out of the Kyoto Accord and stonewalling the climate change discussions in Bali.

Science, in its purest form, seeks the truth. When a scientific paper is published, it’s not expressing an opinion, it’s showing the results of careful measurements, data gathering, hypothesizing, experimentation, validation by peer review, all in an effort to get the clearest picture of what’s happening in nature. Sure, debate is part of the process, so is skepticism, but that makes the science stronger. You cannot shoot down good science unless you have good alternative scientific evidence to back it up.

Politics, on the other hand, is affected profoundly by opinion. Politicians need to please everyone to gain votes. So, when a scientific study points out a serious problem such as climate change and a solution that requires a hard decision about reducing carbon emissions, the politician must consider the effect of that decision on jobs (votes), industry (financial support), and public opinion (votes).

At the same time, those who feel threatened by a scientific finding, such as polluting industries, will lobby the government with their own experts who try to dismiss or cast doubt on the original finding. Notice I said dismiss or cast doubt. Industry-hired guns seldom arrive on the scene with their own evidence from experiments they performed and published that counter the mainstream idea. Usually, they’ll say, “I don’t believe it,” which is just an opinion, or they’ll look for small uncertainties in the data and focus on that to cast doubt on the results.

All science involves uncertainties - that’s the way the system works. But it takes a scientific eye to determine whether those uncertainties are significant or not. Without that perspective, a politician hears conflicting views or biased information that clouds the issue and confuses the public.

That’s where the National Science Adviser comes in. He or she is an independent, expert witness whose job is to provide perspective and education to the people at the top where the decisions are made.

Apparently, that’s no longer going to happen in Canada.

- Bob McDonald