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The Black Hole

Bold new toppings: A closer look at the Council of Canadian Academies 3 year plan


Quick Hits:
During election season, I thought it important to encourage all of our readers to get out and vote, especially those from the 18-24 age group.  Even if you feel frustrated with the current lot of parties and MPs, it is important to remind them that you are out there.  As inspiration, university “vote mobs” have been popping up across Canada and are consolidated on the Lead Now website.

Also, for a look at what the various parties have in their platforms regarding research funding, please check out Rob Annan’s summary on his site Don’t Leave Canada Behind.

Bold New Toppings:  A closer look at the Council of Canadian Academies 3 year plan

On April 13, the Council of Canadian Academies released their Strategic Plan 2011-2014 entitled “INSIGHT & IMPACT”.  My first reaction upon reading it, and inspiration for this post’s title, was “wow, that’s a lot of waffling”, but on closer inspection, I think the momentum for the CCA is building and still represents one of the best possible institutions that Canadians could invest in to encourage sound evidence based policy in the future.

This vision was released just a few months after receiving a favourable external review which we discussed in a previous entry:  The Council of Canadian Academies – Thriving, Surviving, or Doomed to Fail?.  This review applauded the strength and credibility of the membership and also noted the impact of the reports but highlighted key concerns of longterm sustainability and dependence on government sponsors.  The current INSIGHT and IMPACT report set out to address the concerns of the external reviewers and establish a vision for moving forward.
In this vision statement the 6 key goals of the CCA are listed as:

  1. Improve responsiveness
  2. Achieve Potential
  3. Maintain Excellence
  4. Become Sustainable
  5. Foster Collaboration
  6. Increase Visibility

The Waffle
You can probably see where my lack of enthusiasm came from as I perused the report – this set of goals could easily have come from a high school student council report.  There are a lot of sections in this report that have all the right buzz words but fail to say much of anything at all.

However, buried within the text, the key ideas to making the CCA a longterm viable entity are present and are worth highlighting.  First, the CCA identifies its priority to be a seen and trusted source of scientific information – something that must remain a core principle for its lifetime.  Secondly, the CCA has pledged to learn from the UK Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences.  This is a very smart move as the Royal Society is celebrating it’s 350th anniversary and the NAS is (older than Canada) in its 148th year.  Both groups have a wealth of experience in informing their citizens and governments in the areas of science and technology.  Third, a recognition of its nearly invisible state outside of its direct sponsors has catalysed a focus on increasing its exposure which can only help to institutionalize this venture in the hearts and minds of Canadians.

Strawberries and Whipped Cream: Standard Ideas
The nuts and bolts of a good science advice organization are in place, and this is evidenced in the impact of its first set of reports which have helped define Canada’s science and technology strategy and have inspired the plans for a world class arctic research station.  The CCA report outlines how to build on these successes and to seek new sponsors for future reports.

The nucleus of another good idea is suggested with the CCA’s plan “to determine a potential question to be initiated by the Council that is relevant to Canadians and viewed as a priority by Canada’s scientific community” – but I ask:  “why stop there?”  In my opinion, this should be THE most important function of such a body – and an example is not far away with the Royal Society being a clear leader in this department.

Fried Chicken on Waffles: Bigger Bolder Ideas
Building on these good ideas, however, a bolder vision is needed if the CCA is to escape relegation to non-importance.  Instead of simply being at the beck and call of government departments and agencies, the CCA should start to make some of its own clamour with position papers on subjects that it feels need to be addressed by policymakers – even a series of opinion editorials on such issues to leading newspapers would be a start.

Furthermore, scientists across the country are already donating their time to get the information together and it seems to me that Canadians would be foolish not to take advantage of this.  If longterm government support is questionable (as indicated by the move of the CCA away from the PMO and into the Ministry of Industry and filtered by the Science and Technology Innovation Council) then I would encourage a massive fundraising effort to attract monies into the coffers of a national science endowment.  This is the type of non-partisan, technical advice that the Canadian public and government agencies need to be the best stewards of our wealth of natural resources and to foster an innovation and invention culture ((a hat tip to Rob Annan again for making a very good point about innovation vs. invention)) that is curiosity driven.  We need groups like the CCA to perform assessments like the one on gas hydrates as a potential energy source to help Canada figure out the best strategy moving forward.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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