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Canada wants your nominations for its national science adviser

OTTAWA—The Canadian government will within weeks issue an open call for nominations for the position of national science adviser, Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan said Thursday at an annual science policy conference here.

Average Canadians, researchers, as well as institutions such as universities, will be asked to offer up candidates for the position, which Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to resurrect after being elected to office in October 2015, while vowing to usher in an era of evidence-based policy- and decision-making informed by scientific knowledge.

The scientific community has been bristling over its lack of input into policy decisions since Trudeau’s predecessor, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, axed the position of national science adviser in 2008. Harper also eliminated the highly respected Health Council of Canada, a body once mandated to advise the government on efforts to achieve systemic healthcare reform.

Duncan said in an interview the government opted to take the rather novel approach of calling for open nominations because “we want to hear from Canadians across the country. We want to make sure we get a wealth of expertise in science. They have to be respected by the scientific community. They have to understand the research community, as well as how government works. And they have to be a very good communicator.”

If that generates 1000 nominations, “we’re prepared to take a look” at all of them, Duncan added.

Duncan earlier told the 8th annual Canadian Science Policy Conference that the year-long delay in appointing a national science adviser was a function of her desire to ensure that the appointee is armed with “the appropriate roles and responsibilities.” To that end, extensive consultations were undertaken with officials in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and the United Kingdom to ascertain what authority the adviser needs to do the job. “We’re taking the time to get the mandate right,” she says.

A DARPA for Canada?

With the Liberals now having been in office for more than a year, the community is starting to get restless over delays in introducing the so-called new era of evidence-based government, and for the completion of a review of federal financial support for fundamental research. It is being undertaken by a nine-member expert panel headed by former University of Toronto President David Naylor.

The findings of that review are now expected in early January and rumors of Naylor’s recommendations constantly rippled through the 3-day gathering, including the widespread expectation that the panel will recommend the creation of a body similar to America’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which the U.S. Department of Defense has utilized to stimulate the development of emerging technologies. Critics have long argued Canada has been remiss in the use of government procurement programs to drive scientific inquiry.

The Naylor panel is expected by many to recommend a restructuring of research agencies, but whether it will venture so far as to recommend the use of procurement as a tool to promote science is uncertain, though Naylor himself once served on a blue ribbon panel that urged a complete overhaul of business innovation programs, on which the government now spends more than $5 billion per year.

Trump buzz

With the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship reporting that its website has repeatedly crashed as a consequence of on onslaught of American inquiries in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s ascension to the U.S. presidency, the conference has also been abuzz with speculation about the real estate mogul’s impact on Canadian science.

Many believe Trump’s victory will make it easier for Canadian universities to recruit American talent in a forthcoming competition for Canada Research Chairs. “Talented people who don’t want to stay in that environment and are worried about their careers or their families, they’ll be looking elsewhere,” says Rees Kassen, professor of biology and university research chair in experimental evolution at the University of Ottawa. “We’re very nearby, we’re not so dissimilar, and we have a research system that, with all its faults, is very supportive of innovation and discovery-based research.”

Others warned the U.S. election results should raise a red flag for Canadian scientists. They fear a failure to establish a better relationship with taxpayers, and to provide justification for investments in research, could prompt the same sort of anti-intellectual backlash that propelled Trump into office. Karly Kehoe, Canada Research Chair in Atlantic Canadian communities at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax told a panel the “buried lesson” of the election is that Canadian scientists need to venture out from the ivory tower and make the case for science, because the average Canadian doesn’t understand why research needs to be supported.