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Building Science Integrity Principles

Dave Secord is the Vice President of Strategic Grantmaking, Tides Canada Foundation. Paul Dufour is Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Science and Policy, University of Ottawa. Sarah Otto is Professor of Zoology and Director of the Centre for Biodiversity Research, University of British Columbia. 

The muzzling of federal scientists in Canada hit the mainstream media following the AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver BC in February 2012. At the conference, a panel of experts described some disturbing trends in the federal government’s approach to its own scientists and their communication of research to journalists and the Canadian public.  Concerns had been circulating in various communities – academic and public sector researchers, non-governmental organizations, and philanthropic foundations – about government control over communications, which limited access to federal scientists by the media, and hence by the public.  As a result, various parties initiated studies to obtain more evidence about the scale and scope of the muzzling issue.  According to a 2013 survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, nearly three out of four federal scientists (71%) believed political interference had compromised Canada’s ability to develop policy, law and programs based on scientific evidence. Nearly half (48%) were aware of actual cases in which their department or agency suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public, industry and/or other government officials. [1]

Following the AAAS meeting and the publication of several critical media reports, a few individuals – particularly those with an interest either in funding science or practicing evidence-based philanthropy – began to discuss how we might collectively address the issue. [2] It quickly became clear that even defining the problem would not be straightforward; the experience in Canada to date and parallel experiences earlier in the United States suggested muzzling was a symptom of deeper systemic issues.

Our objectives were not to critique one particular government’s real or perceived misdeeds. Rather, we sought to define the scope of a problem comprehensively and accurately, including all parties whose expertise and experience were relevant. We developed the goal of offering up consensus-based principles and “gold standard” practices for evidence-based decision-making by all levels of government in Canada (not just federal) and across diverse areas of public policy. The Science Integrity Project (SIP) was born.

The Building Blocks for Evidence-based Policy Making in Canada

Before describing how SIP developed, it is instructive to consider the deeper historical roots from which it grew. It is clear that use of sound evidence in decision-making has profound effects on Canadian society, from increasing the efficacy of criminal justice practices to protecting our cities from climate change, from incorporating the best data in public health and education policies to sustainably managing our forests, fisheries, and farms. Indeed, there is little on the policy front that does not benefit from effective, timely use of relevant knowledge.

Across many levels of government and political parties over many decades, Canada has experimented with a variety of organizational and institutional mechanisms to improve evidence-based decision-making.

As early as 1966, the establishment of the Science Council of Canada attested to the importance of guiding public policy, and Canadians in general, through scientific advice and evidence.  The Science Council of Canada operated at arm’s length from the government and reported to Parliament through a Minister responsible for science. Its mandate was to assess Canada’s scientific and technological resources, requirements and potentialities, and to increase public awareness of scientific and technological problems and opportunities. It produced numerous studies in its 25 year life-span, before  eliminated in 1992.

In later years, various advisory councils appointed by federal governments came to populate the science advice landscape. [3] Particularly interesting was the Council of Science and Technology Advisors (CSTA). Established in 1998, CSTA was designed to provide the Cabinet with external expert advice on internal federal government science and technology issues. It was chaired by the Secretary of State for Science, Research and Development, and its 22 members were nominated from their Advisory Boards/Councils by Ministers of science-based departments and agencies.

Following public controversies surrounding key issues such as dwindling fish stocks, the contamination of Canada’s blood supply, genetically modified organisms, and growth hormone use in dairy cows, the government looked to the CSTA for help. The resulting Science and Government Effectiveness (SAGE[4]) report of 1999 was adopted by the Cabinet in 2000 as a series of principles and guidelines for the effective use of science and technology advice in government decision-making. The framework borrowed heavily from a similar set of principles in the UK. [5]

The advice from SAGE is as salient today as it was then:

  • Government needs to anticipate, as early as possible, those issues for which science advice will be required.
  • Advice should be drawn from a variety of scientific sources and from experts in relevant disciplines.
  • Government should employ measures to ensure the quality, integrity and objectivity of the science and science advice it uses, and ensure that science advice is considered in decision-making. 
  • Government should develop a risk management framework that includes guidance on how and when precautionary approaches should be applied.
  • 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 the science advice used to reach the decision.

In 2007, three existing advisory structures – CSTA, an Advisory Council on Science and Technology and the National Science Advisor – were replaced with the Science and Technology Innovation Council (STIC).  The mandate of STIC is “to provide confidential advice on science, technology and innovation policy issues” to the Government of Canada. The mandated confidentiality has made it difficult to assess the extent and kind of evidence that has been considered and how this evidence is used to guide policy.

With the election of a federal Liberal government in 2015, a new Minister for Science has been appointed. The remit of this new Minister includes creating the position of a Chief Science Officer to ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses and evidence are considered when the government makes decisions.

Beyond the federal level, various general or issue-specific science advisory mechanisms have been independently pioneered at other levels of government in Canada, especially in provinces and territories, but also in municipal and indigenous governments. In addition, non-governmental civil society efforts have been designed to help improve the ability of governments to use evidence more effectively in decision-making. The non-profit advocacy organization Evidence for Democracy and the multi-party Science Integrity Project are two such examples.

The Science Integrity Project

Given this historical context and with guidance from a steering committee, the Science Integrity Project set out to better  define the problem we were trying to solve and to deepen our nuanced understanding of it.

SIP was built through several distinct activities that reinforced one another:

  • A research phase consisting of interviews with about 30 Canadian leaders who collectively had centuries of professional experience in generating and applying knowledge to policy. Individuals interviewed represented diverse sectors of Canadian society – universities, public and Indigenous governments, NGOs and foundations, consultants and think tanks.  They also represented professional experience with non-federal policy issues in nearly all of the country’s provinces and territories. Each of these interviews was conducted by one or more members of the Steering Committee, along with post-doctoral researchers on the SIP team. A synthesis of the findings and themes of these interviews – to be summarized in a forthcoming publication – was a major design input for the next phase. [6]
  • A discussion phase involving about 60 participants at a national forum in Toronto in February 2015. Held over 2.5 days, the professionally facilitated forum stimulated high-level discussion among leaders and practitioners of evidence-based policy, ranging from education and health to climate change and fisheries management. About 20% of the forum participants brought particular expertise in the generation and application of Indigenous knowledge. Guided by background material on the history of evidence-based decision making and a summary of the interviews, the forum achieved: 1) cross-cutting dialogue among those in diverse evidence-based research and policy fields; 2) agreement that the issue went deeper historically than the then-current government, beyond the federal jurisdictional scale, and across many disciplines and sectors; 3) consensus that the nature of policy-relevant evidence includes complementary insights from science and traditional knowledge; and 4) exploration of the key principles that would guide scientists and policy makers towards improved science-based decision making across issues and jurisdictions.
  • A consensus phase involving multiple rounds of drafting, consultation, and revision of the forum outputs. The result included a set of principles [7] for well-informed decision-making in Canada, contextual and background information for those principles, and examples of real-world stories illustrating the value of science and traditional knowledge as inputs to better decisions at all levels of government.
  • An implementation phase calling upon a variety of actors to apply the principles in widest possible range of contexts across the country.

SIP resulted in four consensus principles for how evidence can improve important decisions on a wide range of Canadian issues (Figure 1).

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Figure 1

The goal of SIP is lofty: to make Canada an international leader in openly-discussed, evidence-based policy and decision-making. It is worth pointing out a few specific issues with which the SIP process and participants grappled.

When using the term “science,” all knowledge and evidence sources must be included.  Particularly crucial in Canada is indigenous knowledge, the body of knowledge resulting from intellectual activity and insight gained in a traditional context and adapted over time to modern situations. [8] How best to incorporate indigenous knowledge in decision-making, in a mutually respectful and beneficial manner, created robust discussion at the forum and in the drafting process afterwards, and remains a pressing question that warrants sustained and focused follow-up efforts. This is a deeply complex issue, given the colonial history of usurping indigenous culture and knowledge and the mistrust of science generated by non-consensual and dehumanizing experiments in Canadian history. [9] Participants throughout the SIP process pointed out examples of constructive application of indigenous knowledge to critical policy decisions, especially in the context of wildlife, watersheds, and land use planning in western and northern Canada.

It became clear during the discussions that action is required both on the part of decision makers and on the part of knowledge generators and holders to improve evidence-based decision-making.  As a result, the first three of the principles require actions on the part of scientists: to conduct research with integrity, to communicate information openly, and to share and preserve knowledge for others to use. We sought to offer a set of principles that would have enough precision to encourage accountable application, but at the same time be general enough to generate practices tailored to diverse issues and jurisdictions.

Who do we hope our audience will be?  All Canadians – indeed people and institutions around the world – who, acting individually and collectively, can embrace and apply the principles.  We hope that our rigorous and inclusive process has produced principles that can be brought alive by those involved in knowledge generation and transmission over generations, people involved in making and improving policies, and all of us who make decisions in our everyday lives and who deserve to have those decisions informed by accessible and interpretable evidence.


[1] Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, The Big Chill: Silencing Public Interest Science: A Survey, 2013;      see  http://www.pipsc.ca/portal/page/portal/website/issues/science/bigchill

[2] For a list of participants throughout the process, see http://scienceintegrity.ca/SIP2015/background.html

[3] http://scienceintegrity.ca/SIP2015/documents/SIP_background.pdf

[4] http://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/84765/publication.html

[5]  www.gov.uk/government/publications/scientific-and-engineering-advice-guidelines-for-policy-makers  

[6] http://scienceintegrity.ca/SIP2015/documents/SIP_Interviews_Synthesis_FINAL.pdf

[7] http://scienceintegrity.ca/SIP2015/principles.html

[8] Definition adapted from the World Intellectual Property Organization

[9] E.g., Mosby, I. (2013). Administering colonial science: Nutrition research and human biomedical experimentation in Aboriginal communities and residential schools, 1942–1952. Histoire sociale/Social history, 46(1), 145-172.

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