This year’s IUPAC/CCCE conference opens Friday amidst renewed public debate about the role of science in government policy and decision-making, including what a new House of Commons Standing Committee on Science and Research might accomplish.
When former Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan put forward a motion to create the Committee in May, she spoke of the importance of parliamentarians gaining a better understanding of science and research. She focused in particular on Canada’s research strengths in areas such as computer science applications, fuel cells, neurodegeneration, personalized medicine, bioinformatics and regenerative medicine.
Duncan, currently Deputy House Leader of the Government, saw her motion pass unanimously and its work is slated to begin next month. While a fall election call could delay the committee’s work, it won’t threaten its creation.
“My reaction? One word: ‘Finally,’” says McGill University chemist and Dean of Science Bruce Lennox, who is the Chair of this year’s CCCE.
Under the theme of “Solving Global Challenges with Chemistry” the CCCE program emphasizes the vital role chemistry has in the future of society. The theme highlights the importance of chemistry in energy, health, society, sustainability and frontier discovery and development.
Chemistry is key to better understanding many of these issues, he says, pointing out that much of the pure research work done by chemists 25 years ago helped lay the groundwork for components of some of today’s COVID-19 vaccines.
“Climate change and the pandemic have reinforced the fact that every pure science problem connects with real world problems,” says Lennox. “This committee can call witnesses, pose questions, adopt resolutions and request reports. It’s not just about giving science a voice. It’s saying “Science, what should we know and what should we do about this problem?’”
Lennox says that the Committee will also be important as a vehicle for Canadian politicians to connect with politicians in other countries with similar committees.
“There’s a saying that CEOs talk to CEOs. I’m a dean and I know deans talk to deans,” says Lennox. “Canada needs to be able to talk to its equivalents in the UK, the US, the EU, Japan, Australia, etc.”
While he is encouraged the Committee received unanimous consent, Lennox recognizes partisanship could pose a significant challenge to its effectiveness. Former Senator Kelvin Ogilvie, an international expert in biotechnology, bioorganic chemistry and genetic engineering, has a similar take.
“I think having this Committee is a good idea. But it will not do for scientists what many scientists want it to do,” he says. “It’s a political operation and largely reflects the agenda of the government. That agenda will be designed not to cause any embarrassment.”
Ogilvie, who retired from the Senate in 2017, chaired its Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. That Committee produced a number of studies on health issues affecting Canadians.
While that Committee did important work, Ogilvie says his role in the Senate’s health research caucus may have been more effective in enlightening parliamentarians about science.
Between 2010 and 2017, he ran a series of regular science “kiosks” – casual events where parliamentarians could visit scientists positioned at various stations as they discussed their areas of expertise. Parliamentarians were able to ask questions without fear of publicly embarrassing themselves and often came away with a greater understanding.
“When we would subsequently have debates on scientific issues, we were often better informed,” recalls Ogilvie. “That’s because caucuses are not constrained by rules of Parliament and can be relatively free of politics. So my expectations for new House committee would not be over the moon, but I do think it’s a good thing.”