When Science Graced the Canadian Ministry—A Look Back at 1971

Posted on Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Author: Prof. Paul Dufour

Paul Dufour

Senior Fellow, ISSP, uOttawa
Principal, Paulicyworks

With this month’s cabinet shuffle, Canada has another minister responsible for the massive portfolio of innovation, science and economic development with over 20 agencies and 35 programs under its wing. It is worth taking the opportunity to view how science and technology came to have a seat at federal Cabinet tables 50 years ago.

Historically, science and research were not usually top of mind when federal ministries were announced. Traditionally, the knowledge development and research mandates were attached within the resource departments—fisheries, forestry, agriculture, resources development—and often subsumed within industry, commerce and trade departments. 

“Science and technology” did not appear in a Canadian ministry until Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau created the Ministry of State for Science and Technology (MOSST) in August 1971. To form its nucleus, he transferred the Science Secretariat that had existed in the Privy Council Office. That was a policy experiment designed to assist departments and agencies within the Government in the formulation and development of advice on:

  • The optimum investment in, and application of, science and technology in pursuit of national objectives
  • The organization of the scientific establishment in the public service of Canada
  • The allocation of financial, personnel and other resources to Canadian scientific endeavours, and
  • The extent and nature of Canada’s participation in international scientific affairs and the coordination of related domestic activities.

It is worth noting that the ministry would also seek to foster cooperative relationships with the provinces, public and private organizations, and with other nations. More interesting was the notion that the new ministry would strive to forecast or foresee both short-term and long-term consequences of using various technologies and advise the government of its findings.

As the Privy Council background document put it: if we are to make progress toward our broadened social goals, more, not less, science will be required; more, not less, technology will be demanded. Our ability to restore and maintain the quality of the environment depends upon more knowledge and better technology. So too, does our ability to advance health care, education or urban living.

There have been numerous assessments of what went wrong with this Ministry of State concept, the best of which is the 1974 Science Council of Canada study written by Peter Aucoin and Richard French titled Knowledge, Power and Public Policy. In that report, the authors argued that for the concept to survive it would need to adopt an honest broker role by convening advisory panels with broad representation from inside and outside of government and coordinating departmental interaction with provinces on science and technology matters, for example. In a 2020 article, I reviewed other arguments of the weaknesses in such a service-oriented organization challenging traditional line departments on matters of public policy and why MOSST did not ultimately survive.

But the notion of a science minister has resurfaced from time to time. Ministers for science and research or Secretaries of State were established in the Mulroney and Campbell tenures and science and technology in the Chretien and Harper eras, but their visibility was low and impacts somewhat muted, little attention was given to the foresight capabilities of a fully-functioning knowledge ministry that underscored in 1971.

Trudeau resurrected a full Minister of Science in 2015 to address the lack of support for science and muzzling of scientists from the previous he incumbent did her best to inculcate the need for science and reliable knowledge within the machinery of government and to make the case for research excellence through an expert panel she appointed, but that Cabinet post for science was eliminated. Fortunately, a Chief Science Advisor was also appointed, and that position was recently renewed. But a gap remains at the political level. Where is the real political commitment within the federal government for a stand-alone science ministry (or for that matter within any of the province and territories)?

So here we are in 2021 with a global pandemic on our hands and others likely to come and science yes sound knowledge and evidence have come to the fore (even if foresight failed us). An opportunity to build on lessons learned from the original experiment of 1971 may have briefly been passed bias public health officials science advisors an increasingly knowledge-thirsty yet concerned citizenry.

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