Science in Canada: Some advice for a new Chief Science Officer

As I've extensively chronicled, Canadian government science had some pretty rough years under the government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

But Canada has a new government, a new prime minister in Justin Trudeau and a new cabinet. Kirsty Duncan, an actual scientist who worked on the IPPC, has been appointed Science Minister. Come to think of it, we have a Science Minister.

The roster of ministers in other science and technology-related portfolios is also very strong. Navdeep Singh Bains at Innovation, Science and Economic Development. Lawrence MacAulay at Agriculture and Agri-Food. Jane Philpott at Health. Marc Garneau at Transport. Jim Carr at Natural Resources. Hunter Tootoo at Fisheries and Oceans, and Canadian Coast Guard. Catherine McKenna at Environment and Climate Change. And yes, we have a Minister of Climate Change. And Mélanie Joly at Heritage, in charge of Libraries and Archives Canada.

If there was ever a time to stake a claim to the time and effort and political capital of this new government, it has to be now. Strike while the iron is hot, before the inertia sets in. Wait too long to ask for what you want, and it'll be too late. All the resources will already be committed.

Public interest science was one of the areas hardest hit during the Harper years and it's pretty obvious the kinds of things that the new government should tackle in the few year or two of its mandate.

Some things are obvious.

  • Stop the egregious and unnecessary muzzling of government scientists in cases where they want to speak publicly about the results of their scientific work.
  • Where possible, restore environmental regulations that have been gutted such as the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Species at Risk Act.
  • Where possible, restore research programs that have been shuttered or have seen their budgets radically cut.
  • Remove at least some of the mania for tying anything to do with public science to industry partnerships, in particular where it relates to the misguided transformation of the National Research Council into a concierge service for business.

And there has been no shortage of people in the media and various stakeholder groups making recommendations to Prime Minister Trudeau concerning what he should do about Canadian science as he takes office. And most of those included the items I mention above.

What hasn't really appeared on any of the lists I've seen is fixing the damage that the previous Conservative government did to the science library infrastructure in Canada, most prominently to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans library system but also to the systems at Environment Canada and others.

While those libraries were being closed and consolidated, we were assured that the collections were properly merged and weeded, that new scanning and document delivery procedures were being implemented that would effectively replace the local staff and collections and that researchers would see no difference in the level of service. The Federal government did announce an extensive re-visioning of it's science library infrastructure. Which looks good on paper.

But it's safe to say that basically no one believed the Conservatives were up to the challenge of doing a good job of this. All the evidence that we were able to see indicated that the merging and consolidation of collections was rushed, haphazard and devoid of planning at best and willfully destructive at worst. As far as I can tell, we have nothing but the previous government's word that the scanning and document delivery services that were rushed into the breach are anywhere near sufficient. Nor did we see real evidence that they were truly committed to the revisioning.

One of the things that the Liberals promised in their platform was to appoint a Chief Science Officer.

We will value science and treat scientists with respect.

We will appoint a Chief Science Officer who will ensure that government science
is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their
work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes
decisions

The CSO hasn't been appointed yet, but I see no reason why we should all start thinking about what that new person should set their sights on when they start.

I propose that the new Chief Science Officer, in collaboration with the Minister of Science, the Minister of Heritage and all the rest of the science-related Ministers convene a special advisory panel to take a look at what's left of Canada's science library infrastructure and make any recommendations that are necessary to restore the collections and service levels to what Canada's Federal government scientists (and all Canadians) need and deserve while the proposed revisioning takes place. At least fifty percent of the membership of this panel should probably consist of librarians and other stakeholders that currently employed by the Federal Government in any capacity. I also believe that this advisory panel should remain in place as a steering committee for the revisioning of the new Federal Science Library.

At the end of the day, the collections have been dispersed, the staff laid off and the physical spaces repurposed. So much of the damage that was done cannot be repaired.

I should be clear that I don't think the function of this group should be to point fingers or assign blame or rehash past mistakes. It should be forward-looking and patron-focused, with a mission to make sure patrons have the services and collections they need in the short, medium and long term.

6 responses so far

  • […] The new ministers certainly have their work cut out for them. Writing at ScienceBlog, John Dupuis offers them some advice: […]

  • […] of the new ministers with some science or technology responsibilities in their portfolios in his Nov. 4, 2015 posting (Note:  Links have been […]

  • […] The new ministers certainly have their work cut out for them. Writing at ScienceBlog, John Dupuis offers them some advice[12]: […]

  • ScienceLibrariantoo says:

    I like and applaud your efforts here to bring attention to the challenges in federal science and departmental libraries. In this case you are misrepresenting facts. The Federal Science Library (FSL) is nothing to do with past government and everything to do with library directors and their enlightened directors general working to preserve and create a more sustainable model for the future...together. FSL is being built entirely from current library operating budgets...creating scale and economy and sharing investment in new technology that none of us could realize separately - through what is a unique partnership built on years of collaboration. We need support for what we have built largely through our determination NOT to have our libraries thrown under the bus in efforts to reduce costs in departments. We invite shining a light on our efforts of the last three years designing and finding a way to gain endorsement in our departments and as an Open Government Open Information core commitment.

    • John Dupuis says:

      Hi ScienceLibrarianToo, I'm glad to here I'm wrong here and that the FSL project represents a sincere effort to design and build a better federal science library infrastructure. But you have to admit, for people on the outside looking in, it's really hard to tell if that is the case. Especially given that the old infrastructure seems to have been dismantled before the new one is put into place.

      So maybe an interesting way to shine that light and build that support and endorsement is by engaging a steering committee or advisory committee or something that includes external stakeholders. (If there's already such a thing and I just don't know about it, that's great too and I'm happy that's in place.)

      I really do wish you well. I want to reiterate that my post wasn't at all meant as criticism or finger-pointing at the librarians and library staff at the various federal science-related ministries (and LAC as well, to be honest) who have no doubt laboured under difficult circumstances over the past few years.

  • peggy lathwell says:

    Dear Science Librarian,
    Is anyone looking at GMO food?
    I just heard the author of "Altered Genes, Twisted Truth" Steven Drucker talk about the lack of regulation and lack serious scientific work on GMO food. The book is well researched and raised very serious problems related to the use of GMO foods.
    GMO food development and implementation shows a similar pattern to that of tobacco companies promoting the safety of cigarette smoking and oil companies promoting climate change denial; all with governmental collaboration.

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