Quirks and Quarks·Bob McDonald's Blog

Justin Trudeau needs to expand the role of science in government in a big way: report

Most politicians do not have a science background, yet many decisions involve scientific concepts that are often overlooked or misrepresented during the political decision-making process.
Dr. Mona Nemer was introduced as Canada's new Chief Science Advisor in September 2017. Researchers propose that Canada create "Departmental Chief Science Advisors" to help complement and extend the reach of the newly created position. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

While the federal Liberal government has shown support for science by appointing a Chief Science Advisor for the Prime Minister, a new report suggests additional science advisers in individual departments of the government could do more to ensure that political decisions are based on good scientific evidence.

Most politicians do not have a science background, yet many decisions over issues such as climate change, environment, food safety, fisheries, agriculture, space exploration and public health, involve scientific concepts that are often overlooked or misrepresented during the political decision-making process. That's because the science is only one of many factors politicians must consider: there's also the effect on the economy, loss of jobs, business interests, and perhaps the biggest factor in the political world, public perception. If those other factors are considered to be more important, then science can be pushed aside, despite good evidence to the contrary.

It was because of these other factors that the previous Conservative government under Stephen Harper reportedly eliminated the position of science adviser, cut back on science funding, and muzzled federal scientists from speaking about their work, for the sake of preserving the economy, in part, supported by the fossil fuel industry.

 A similar effect is currently at work in the U.S., where President Donald Trump has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord and believes that climate change is a hoax. And globally, carbon emissions continue to climb worldwide despite highly publicized international agreements with promises to cut back. 

To help keep good science at the forefront of Canadian political decisions,  a report in FACETS — a new Canadian, open access, multidisciplinary science journal — is suggesting a host of specialist science advisors to work in departments such as Environment Canada, the Canadian Space Agency, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, or Health Canada. They could be called upon by the Chief Science Advisor to provide advice in those specific areas. This makes sense since one scientist cannot be expected to be an expert in all fields of science.

In addition to providing accurate scientific information internally for the government, the report's authors also suggests that these departmental advisers provide:

  • Outreach services.
  • Communicate to the public about Canadian scientific research.
  • Provide expert opinions when issues such as food safety or environmental concerns arise in the media.

This last function is important because there is a wealth of misinformation out there misleading the public. From the idea that the moon landings were faked, to chem-trails in the atmosphere controlling our minds, most of them are harmless entertainment.

Jennifer Wonnacott holds her son Gavin as he points to a sign showing support of a measure requiring nearly all California school children to be vaccinated. The bill was in response to a measles outbreak in Disneyland in 2014. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

But some can have serious consequences, such as the effect of a single scientific paper that came out in 1998 linking vaccines to autism. Even though this report has been proven to be poorly done, wrong in its conclusions and even fraudulent, and despite strong scientific evidence that vaccines are effective in preventing disease, the idea spread, generating fear and confusion among parents who decided to avoid vaccinations for their children just to be safe.  As a result, new outbreaks of measles are now appearing among children, including in the U.S. 

As a society, we face some hard decisions about how we proceed in the 21st century in a sustainable way without compromising the environment, resources of food, water, or land, while controlling disease, providing clean energy, and basically ensuring the survival of the human species.

Science has already pointed the way to many solutions to these issues, but the scientific perspective has often been ignored for a "business as usual" approach that does not disturb the status quo. With proper scientific information, both for the public and politicians, intelligent decisions can be made to advance our civilization without going bankrupt in the process.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.