Ottawa's decision to establish an explicit framework for incorporating science and technology decision-making into government policy and regulation marks a significant first step towards confronting the need for top-notch, impartial science advice, as well as acknowledging sins of the past. The S&T framework comes several months after the release of a major report by the Council of Science and Technology Advisors (CSTA), which outlined six principles upon which S&T should be used to assist in government decision-making (see box).
The new framework adopts the report's principles with few revisions and provides detailed guidelines and implementation measures to ensure proper promotion, accountability and evaluation of effectiveness. It also accepts a key recommendation to appoint a champion for science advice in each department and agency, and makes those individuals responsible for guiding implementation, creating a checklist of key issues and preparing a report for inclusion in the Annual Report on Federal Science and Technology. Implicit in the framework is further government recognition of the need for adequate funding of federal S&T. The drive for increasing science capacity received a boost last month with a new mandate for the CSTA to examine excellence in federally performed research (R$, May 26/00).
For Dr Kevin Keough, who chaired the CSTA sub-committee that produced the original report (Science Advice for Government Effectiveness - SAGE), the government's decision to endorse its recommendations brings a considerable sense of satisfaction (R$, July 21/99).
"This puts us on the leading edge," says Keough, who was recently appointed CSTA vice-chair by Dr Gilbert Normand, secretary of state for science, research and development. "For Canada it's going to help to ensure and reassure both government and the people that the kinds of science going into the development of policy will be the best that we can get."
Keough lauds the framework for its inclusiveness, while respecting the different mandates, advisory processes and codes of conduct employed by federal departments and agencies. The framework also urges members of the Assistant DMs' Committee on S&T to develop common criteria for assessing how best to adhere to and implement the new principles and guidelines.
Repairing the daMage
For Gilbert Norman, who also chairs the CSTA, the need for various advisory tools is urgently needed as the pace of technological change accelerates. He contends the framework and the CSTA's new mandate will go far towards gauging the strengths and weaknesses of existing federal S&T capacity, and help point to where improvements are required.
"In the past few years, we've done a lot for university research but we have not done so much for our own research centres. Changes in high-technology are happening very fast so we must have all the necessary tools in hand," he says. "Many departments are in a good position, but some others - with cuts in their budgets - are in some difficulty."
While the framework may give Canada the lead in terms of integrating S&T into public policy, many contend that such a move is long overdue. For years, there has been escalating concern within and outside government that S&T is not properly informing decisions made by elected officials. Several high-profile scandals in the areas of the environment and health and safety have shaken public confidence and trust in the government motives behind controversial decisions.
In a remarkable expression of acknowledgement for government, the framework states that: "recent government decisions in the areas of natural resources management, public health and safety and other areas have undermined public confidence and contributed to public concern."
|S&T FRAMEWORK PRINCIPLES|
Early Issue Identification
Government needs to anticipate, as early as possible, those issues for which science advice will be required, in order to facilitate timely and informed decision-making
Advice should be drawn from a variety of specific sources and from experts in relevant disciplines, in order to capture the full diversity of scientific schools of thought and opinion
Sound Science & Science Advice
Government should employ measures to ensure the quality, integrity and objectivity of science and science advice it uses, and ensure that science advice is considered in decision-making
Uncertainty & Risk
Science in public policy always contains uncertainty that must be assessed, communicated and managed. Government should develop a risk management framework that includes guidance on how and when precautionary approaches should be applied
Transparency & Openness
The government is expected to employ decision-making processes that are open, as well as transparent, to stakeholders and the public
Subsequent review of science-based decisions is required to determine whether recent advances in scientific knowledge have an impact on science advice used to reach the decision.