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By Jeff Kinder and Paul Dufour, eds., (Ottawa: Invenire Press)
The Science Council of Canada (1966-1992) was at the forefront of a global assessment of how knowledge can shape society. As a federally-funded, independent think tank, it stimulated a dynamic yet critical dialogue about the role of science, technology, and innovation in Canada.
The book describes the Science Council as a “lantern on the bow,” a light shining forward to illuminate the course ahead, to help the ship of state navigate through unknown waters and potentially rocky shoals. Through over 50 studies, the Science Council grappled with a wide range of issues that still resonate: priority-setting in research; STEM education and the supply and demand of highly qualified personnel; foresight and science advice to government; the social and economic returns of investments in basic research and big science; climate change, environmental conservation and natural resource management and sustainability; and, the impact of disruptive innovations and related issues of risk perception and risk assessment.
Consistent with its overall nautical metaphor, this history and examination of the Science Council is organized into three parts. In the first part – Lighting the Lantern – the authors explore the historical context for science advice in Canada and relate the story of the Science Council’s beginnings and evolution.
In the book’s second part – Navigating a Course – the focus shifts to the work of the Science Council with chapters examining one or more of its core studies in areas of national concern. This part is organized around the three major focal points of the Science Council’s advice: a) Canada’s science system; b) science and technology (S&T)-based public policy priorities, including the environment and the rise of an information society; and c) industrial technology and innovation policy.
In the third part – Extinguishing the Lantern – the authors tell the story of the demise and closure of the Science Council and take a look back through the eyes of Janet Halliwell, the Science Council’s final president. A concluding chapter reviews the Council’s legacy and contemplates where we might be heading.
Lacking decision-making authority and with very limited resources, moral suasion, and the authority of knowledge were the Science Council’s primary tools of influence. It had to rely on its outreach and communications to constantly make its case. Ultimately, however, government decision-makers need to see the value in obtaining advice in the domains of science, technology and innovation. As Paul Dufour notes in his chapter: “If there is a lesson in all of this, it is that demand cannot be forced for science advice – there must be a receptor and champions who are prepared to accept and ask for independent views and advice.”
In this “post-truth” era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” the need has never been greater for decision-makers who are thirsty for the evidence and insights of science, technology, and innovation to help chart and navigate our common future. As Canada continues to experiment with its science advisory ecosystem, there is much we can learn from the history and contributions of this important institution.
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