Ministerial Mandate Letters Help Detail Expectations For Canadian Government

New Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has released the Ministerial Mandate Letters he submitted to his Cabinet Ministers (H/T The Frogheart Daily).  They outline PM Trudeau’s expectations for his ministers, which focus a great deal on collegiality with members of Parliament outside of the Liberal Party and being open and transparent in their dealings.

But the letters also outline priorities and goals for the ministries.  As Science is part of the job title for two different Ministers, these letters help define which areas of science and science policy will fall under which Minister.  Other Ministers have science and technology responsibilities (I’ve described these in a separate post) and you can check out their letters as well.

The new Science Minister, Kirsty Duncan, was given the following priorities in her letter:

  • Create a Chief Science Officer mandated 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 are considered when the government makes decisions.
  • Support your colleagues in the review and reform of Canada’s environmental assessment processes to ensure that environmental assessment decisions are based on science, facts, and evidence.
  • Support the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour in efforts to help employers create more co-op placements for students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and business programs.
  • Support your Ministerial colleagues as they re-insert scientific considerations into the heart of our decision-making and investment choices.
  • Lead the establishment of new Canada Research Chairs in sustainable technologies, working with the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.
  • Work in collaboration with the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to examine the implications of climate change on Arctic marine ecosystems.
  • Examine options to strengthen the recognition of, and support for, fundamental research to support new discoveries.

The following paragraph from the letter outlines Trudeau’s philosophy with respect to the role of science in this government.

“We are a government that believes in science – and a government that believes that good scientific knowledge should inform decision-making.  We believe that investments in scientific research, including an appropriate balance between fundamental research to support new discoveries and the commercialization of ideas, will lead to good jobs and sustainable economic growth. As Minister of Science, your overarching goal will be to support scientific research and the integration of scientific considerations in our investment and policy choices.  Support for science is an essential pillar in our strategy to create sustainable economic growth and support and grow the middle class.”
It’s worth noting – because it often gets lost – that this philosophy sees scientific knowledge and scientific considerations are but one input into policy and decision making.  Inform, not dictate.
It’s also worth noting that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (MP Navdeep Bains) is mentioned just once in the Minister of Science letter.  Looking at the letter sent to Minister Bains, it would seem that PM Trudeau sees science in this portfolio in service to economic development and innovation.  The role as outlined in the letter:

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Manhattan Project National Historical Park Open-ish For Visits

On Tuesday the Department of Energy and the National Park Service (NPS) signed the official memorandum of agreement to establish the Manhattan Project Historical Park.  This does not mean that you can immediately visit the sites in the park (Hanford, Washington; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Los Alamos, New Mexico) and see lots of new signs and National Park Service-style displays and rangers and such.  This agreement marks the end of the beginning for the park’s development.

The NPS estimates it will take two years to complete planning for the parks, and another three to five years to prepare the sites for public access.  This planning and implementation will be done in cooperation with the Department of Energy, which still operates facilities at each of the sites.

This does not mean that you cannot visit these places.  For the Hanford and Oak Ridge sites there are already means to tour some of the historical facilities.  Walking tours of the town of Los Alamos are the best available option for the foreseeable future.

(The Bruggeman Agricultural Warehouse Complex at the Hanford site has, as far as I know, no direct connection to my family, even though I grew up within 30 miles of the place.  Further research may prompt me to revise that statement, or at least clarify whether the same spelling is involved.)

Quick Hits: Bioethics Meeting Agenda, Science PAC Endorsements And More Science With Tom

Three short items to pass along.

The next Bioethics Commission meeting is November 17 in the Washington, D.C. area.  The agenda is now available online.  The meeting is effectively a continuation of the September meeting, when the Commission focused on deliberation and deliberative methods in bioethics and bioethics education.  Following a morning panels on innovation in ethics education, the rest of the day is dedicated to member discussions.  This suggests that a report on these topics is reaching a place where it could be released in the next few months.

314 PAC, a political action committee which focuses on (Democratic) scientifically inclined candidates for federal office, has started issuing its endorsements for the 2016 Congressional elections.  The three endorsed so far are all incumbent members of Congress, and two of them – Representative Bill Foster (Illinois, and the sole Ph.D. physicist in Congress) and Representative Seth Moulton (Massachusetts, with an undergraduate degree in physics) – have been endorsed by 314 PAC in the past.  The newest addition is Representative Louise Slaughter of New York.  She has undergraduate training in microbiology and a master’s degree in public health, and has served in Congress since 1987 (far longer than either Foster or Moulton).  Among Slaughter’s legislative accomplishments is ensuring that the National Institutes of Health would include minorities and women in the populations of its clinical trials.

Sadly, I cannot find recent activity of two other political committees organized around science.  Neither Franklin’s List nor First in Science (a so-called super PAC) appear to be currently active, though I would love to be proven wrong.

Finally, Tom McFadden has released the third episode/lesson of Science With Tom.  It focuses on body systems and bacteria.  His scientist guest is Dr. Jonathan Lynch, a microbiologist.  As is his practice, each lesson has bonus video besides the main episode.  I’ll embed the main episode, but check out the full playlist for the reading recommendation, music video and other science goodness.

McFadden links his lessons to the Next Generation Science Standards, which will explains some of the on-screen graphics that non-educators might not recognize.  You can also make your own ‘Verse Two’ to go over the instrumental break in the music video (at the end of the main episode or available separately).

Let’s Not Get Too Excited, But There’s A New Canadian Cabinet

Yesterday Justin Trudeau was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Canada following the Liberal Party’s performance in last month’s election.  He also announced his cabinet, and his government announced that it would restore the mandatory long-form census.  I’ll focus on the cabinet, but the census decision is a big deal, especially with the next one scheduled for 2016. The official list of the top tier Cabinet appointments is online.

The census decision was announced by the new Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, MP Navdeep Bains.  Minister Bains was returned to Parliament in this year’s election, having served previously in Parliament from 2004-2011.  His training is in finance and his non-Parliamentary experience has been in financial analysis.  Like the new UK Minister with responsibility for science, Jo Johnson, Bains is considered a rising figure in his party.

Prime Minister Trudeau also appointed a Minister of Science, MP Kirsty Duncan.  In a rarity for such a position, Duncan is a trained scientist, a medical geographer.  This ministerial post is at a higher level in the cabinet than it was in the Harper Government (some would argue that it didn’t exist in that government, but I consider that a semantic argument).  Duncan has served in Parliament since 2008, and was a professor at the University of Windsor and the University of Toronto before this.  Details of her portfolio, and how things might differ now that this ministry is on a higher cabinet level, aren’t clear at the moment.

There are, of course, other appointments to the cabinet that will deal with science and/or technology matters.

MP Marc Garneau, retired astronaut and former head of the Canadian Space Agency, will be Minster of Transport.  Garneau represented the Liberal Party in the national cross-party science debate.

MP Jim Carr will be the Minister of Natural Resources.  This is his first term in Parliament, but has served in the Manitoba legislative assembly.  His background is particularly varied, having (among other things) formed the Business Council of Manitoba, worked as a reporter on the Winnipeg Free Press, and played oboe for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

MP Catherine McKenna is the new Minister for Environment and Climate Change (climate change has been added to the job title).  She is a lawyer and also in her first term in Parliament.

MP Dr. Jane Philpott is the new Health Minister, and also a first-termer in Parliament.  She has years of experience in the health care industry and is a medical doctor of note.

MP Hunter Tootoo is the new Minister for Oceans and Fisheries and the Canadian Coast Guard.  He is also a first-term federal MP, though he has experience in local and territorial government in Nunavut (go ahead, look it up).  He has stated that Trudeau appointed him to the ministry in part because Trudeau wanted to remind Canadians they have three oceans.  Tootoo is not the first Inuk nor the first MP from Nunavut to serve in a Canadian cabinet.  His predecessor, Leona Aglukkaq, served as Minister of Health and then Minister of Environment during the Harper Government.  Canada continues to take the Arctic seriously.

Science Culture On The Weekend – New Science With Tom Video, New Season Of StarTalk

First, while I’ll note more about this in the regular late night post, Thursday night’s episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert did indeed include a segment with both Seth MacFarlane and Neil deGrasse Tyson sitting down with Stephen Colbert and talking space news.  It was delayed by football in most of the country, so you may have missed it on your television.  The full episode is available online (for free for a few days), as well as clips.  Again, I’ll have more on Monday.

This weekend you can watch two late night hosts on one show.  Larry Wilmore, host of The Nightly Show, is Neil deGrasse Tyson’s special guest on StarTalk.  That episode premieres on Sunday night. Tyson has appeared on The Nightly Show, and Wilmore prompted a showdown with Tyson over their respective credentials as blerds – black nerds.  Tyson will be joined in studio by frequent co-host Eugene Mirman and Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist that has researched comedy.

Last Sunday was the season premiere with former President Bill Clinton.  It had, arguably, the most science policy and science communication discussions on StarTalk, at least in its television version.  Besides Tyson’s in-studio co-host (Chuck Nice) and guest – Juan Enriquez, an expert on the economic and political impacts of life sciences – there was a video chat with Richard Muller, author of Physics for Future Presidents, former climate change skeptic and professor of physics.  I think, based on what Tyson says in this episode, that he is a bit naïve, or ill informed, about the roles of science advisers and science ministers in government.  I think Chuck Nice had a lovely point about our leaders having intellectual curiosity – that it can have a beneficial trickle-down effect through the citizenry.

I’ll end this post, and open the weekend, with the latest video from Tom McFadden.  It’s all his doing, this cell division song based on the latest Drake track, “Hotline Bling.”

Have a lovely weekend.  Me, I’ll be trying to stay up through the epic MythBusters marathon on The Science Channel.

Will New Canadian Government Be The Change Its Scientists Can Believe In?

Monday’s Canadian election resulted in the end of the Harper Government, which has led Canada since 2006.  The new ruling party is the Liberal Party, which made a significant turnaround in this election, moving from third in seats to first.  The incoming Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, will name his Cabinet on November 4, but we can examine some possible intentions for science and technology policy in Canada based on the election results and the Liberal party platform.

Let’s start with the election results.  Only one of the four party representatives at the recent science and technology debate managed to win a seat in the upcoming Parliament.  MP Marc Garneau will remain in Parliament, and his experience in the Canadian Space Agency means he may be able to better manage the changes sought in official government (as opposed to Parliamentary) policy.

The Conservatives will now shift to being the Official Opposition (the largest party not in power).  However, the current cabinet minister responsible for science and technology, and at least two of his predecessors, lost their seats.  The party that was the Official Opposition, the New Democratic Party (NDP), lost several seats, returning to the third largest party in Parliament.  (However, they appear to be a more natural ally for the Liberals than the Conservatives) MP Kennedy Stewart, who has championed the establishment of a Parliamentary Science Officer, barely retained his seat.  He will likely remain as the NDP science critic.

The Liberal party platform, summarized in this campaign document, focuses on reversing a trend of what they consider the restrictions and isolation of the Harper government.  While the policies on media access to government scientists are part of this trend, they may not be the first priority for Trudeau and his cabinet.  It may turn out to be something similar to the transition from the Bush to the Obama Administrations.  Changes to policies concerning so-called political interference with science were promised, but have not gotten the thorough commitment from the Obama Administration that some would have liked and/or expected.

Put another way, this is a start, and not the end, to the kind of policy changes Canadian scientists have clamored for.  Arguably American scientists dropped the ball, and I’d rather not see it happen again north of the border.

Canadians Have Cross-Party Science Debate

With less than 10 days before the Parliamentary elections, representatives of four of Canada’s major parties participated in a science debate hosted by the CBC radio program Quirks and Quarks.  Program host Bob McDonald moderated the debate, as he did for a local science debate in Victoria, British Columbia last month.  The full audio is available for listening.

There were representatives participating from the ruling Conservative Party, the Official Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), the Liberal Party, and the Green Party.  Questions covered greenhouse gas emissions, the Conservatives’ policy on managing communications by government scientists about their research, and the parties stances on federal funding of research.

Notably each of the representatives were either trained in science and technology and/or have experience with those issues in government.  The Conservative representative was Gary Goodyear, who served for a time as Minister of State for Science and Technology under Prime Minister Harper.  The NDP representative was Megan Leslie, who has represented her party in Parliament as Critic (the Canadian term for a shadow minister) for Health and for Environment.  Marc Garneau represented the Liberal Party.  He is a former Canadian astronaut and headed the Canadian Space Agency prior to running for office.  His training is in physics and electrical engineering.  Representing the Green Party was Lynne Quarmby, who is the Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University.

What would be the American equivalent of this debate?  Controlling for the differences between our presidential system and the Canadian parliamentary system, I think it could be one of two possible scenarios:

  • A debate between the Chairs and Ranking Members of the Congressional committees involved in science and technology matters.  As the number of committees engaged in those topics grows, it’s no longer accurate to say that one particular committee (really two, one for each chamber in Congress) is the definitive science and technology committee.  This arrangement could be done for every election year, not just the ones where a presidential race is on the ballot.
  • A debate between the leaders of the major science and technology agencies in Congress and designees from the relevant campaigns.  In the case of an election with no incumbent President, it would be all designees.  I think this would be problematic because I would not expect candidates to have their potential agency heads identified months in advance of the election.  I also think the potential debaters may be reluctant to participate for concerns over making a future confirmation hearing more difficult for them.  An advantage, I think, for the parliamentary cross-party debates is that the participants are typically themselves up for election.  But the stronger division between the executive and legislative branches in the U.S. presidential system has advantages I’d rather not give up.

The equivalent debate would probably be on Science Friday and/or C-SPAN Radio, assuming there were willing participants.  Given the circus atmosphere surrounding our presidential debates (which is not unique to this year), I’d understand any reluctance to participate in something which would require more detail and ask for additional scrutiny than the broader gabfests we’ve gotten used to in the U.S.

But back to the Canadians.  I’m very happy to see that they were able to organize and execute a debate like yesterday’s as quickly as they did.  May you all have a happy Thanksgiving and get out to vote on the 19th.