A reform of science that looks like a forced merger

Bill 44 formalizes the transfer of scientific policy to the Minister of Economy, Innovation and Energy, merges the three Quebec Research Funds (FRQ), and modifies the mandate of the chief scientist . Tabled without prior consultation, the bill surprised the Quebec scientific community, which wonders what problems it resolves.

Why the merger?

The merger of the three FRQs into one responds to a problem that the legislators themselves recently created based on a lack of understanding of the research system. In 2022, the FRQ was subject to the Act respecting the governance of state-owned corporations, which imposes the rule of two-thirds of so-called “independent” members on boards of directors (CA).

In the parliamentary committee, Christopher Skeete, the Minister for the Economy, replied: “This is the norm in terms of governance. All the researchers, all the scientists in governance tell us that this is the way to proceed. […] It’s like that in all societies. » We wonder which scientists were consulted: the boards of similar organizations in Canada, the United States and Europe are overwhelmingly composed of scientists (more than 75%), affiliated with universities, and therefore “not independent” according to the interpretation given to the law by the Secretariat of Superior Employment.

Here we observe an amalgamation between the boards of public companies (e.g., Hydro-Québec), which generate revenue for the State, and those of research funding organizations, whose mission is completely different. If the minister wishes to adhere to international research governance practices, he should tackle the 2022 reform.

Two roles in tension

The bill also expands the mandate of the chief scientist, which would include advising the government “ on any scientific question likely to inform public policies” (emphasis added), which he would do by issuing “opinions of a scientific nature”. The chief scientist would therefore no longer be confined to informing the political field regarding the development of science, but would have to advise all political decisions based on scientific knowledge. This combination of two roles for the chief scientist is ill-advised for two reasons.

First, the text of the law denotes a misunderstanding of an essential characteristic of scientists: their necessary specialization. There is no such thing as a scientist competent on “every scientific question.” Consequently, an appropriate use of science to inform politics requires a collective capacity to treat with healthy skepticism the opinions of scientists when they do not relate to their fields of expertise – from the specialist in quantum mechanics who pronounces on the climate change to sociologists who question the effectiveness of vaccines. By claiming that the chief scientist will be able to express “opinions of a scientific nature” on all areas covered by contemporary science, the bill perpetuates the cliché of the universal scientist.

Then, through his role as president and CEO of the FRQ, the chief scientist is structurally poorly placed to issue scientific opinions with the necessary independence. As a science administrator, he must make representations to the government for better funding of research and for better integration of science in different parts of Quebec society. He therefore maintains close and, one hopes, cordial relations with the government apparatus.

Furthermore, the credibility of a scientific advisor depends on his ability to express opinions that do not please those in power without fear of reprisals. In the case of the chief scientist, it is the entire Quebec scientific community that could be negatively impacted in the event of a hostile reaction from a government.

The chief scientist therefore cannot afford to be the independent voice of science. According to the current definition of the notion of independence, the chief scientist is in a conflict of interest, because chairing the Research Fund requires defending the interests of researchers, whereas to advise the minister, he must demonstrate detachment!

We are not opposed to the incorporation of the scientific council into the bill. Quebec would benefit from more systematic, rigorous and transparent consideration of scientific information in its political decision-making. If the text of the law errs in personifying an omnipotent scientific advisor, the chief scientist would be well placed to work towards a more successful institutionalization of science for political decision-making. This would make it possible, among other things, to have better informed bills…

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