Beware of trials of intent and the toga effects with the PL44 on scientific research

Acfas has officially expressed its opinion on Bill 44, and all three of us would like to publicly reiterate the broad outlines of our position in order to avoid any ambiguity on it.

Acfas would not have requested changes to the legal framework governing public funding of scientific research in Quebec. The model in force since 2011 proved satisfactory in the eyes of the Quebec research community, and it did not require structural modifications.

However, the government is preparing to make the decision to modify this legal framework. The Acfas brief highlights that the bill generally respects the fundamental principles that ensure the validity of scientific research in Quebec, principles that we took the time to define before formulating seven recommendations. The amendments to the bill that the government has already adopted — and which largely arise from the recommendations of Acfas — help to mitigate the risks inherent in this modification and, from our perspective, ensure the legal, administrative and financial protection of the research activity in Quebec.

How to say ? Our political system allows organizations like ours to speak out on the future of the community it represents and to have its arguments heard.

That being said, it is important for us to continue to contribute to the discussions taking place on the bill by providing what we consider important light on the status of Quebec’s chief scientist and his responsibilities. When, according to PL44, the chief scientist is expected to advise ministers or the government “on any scientific question likely to inform public policies” and to issue “opinions of a scientific nature” (article 22.2) , you have to understand what the words mean. The chief scientist of Quebec, regardless of the person who fulfills the function, cannot be the incarnation or the repository of all universal scientific knowledge in all scientific fields.

In response to a specific scientific question addressed to him by the government, he must make known the current state of knowledge on the subject, according to what the scientific community from the field concerned can tell him. And if scientific knowledge is not available or, as is often the case in science, not clearly decided, he must report this fact to the government.

Three shields

Some have argued that this responsibility is incompatible with the administration of research funds. It is the notion of the independence of the scientist which is at issue here. However, the bill includes at least three shields, one could say, capable of ensuring this independence.

1. When we look at the powers of the boards of state companies, we see that the board constitutes a first line of defense of the independence of the scientist in relation to politics. It is a valuable shield.

2. The chief scientist will be able to rely on three scientific advisory committees, of which “the majority of members [devra] come from a public research establishment or a higher education establishment and have relevant experience related to the sector to which the committee is attached” (article 22.27.1 added by amendment). It is a second shield, which the community requested and which it obtained (see the mandate of the committees in article 22.27.2, added by amendment).

3. Finally, the ultimate shield is the scientific community itself. Having the majority in terms of members within the committee which will make its selection (amendment made to article 22.1), this community will remain vigilant regarding the independent exercise of the responsibilities of the chief scientist.

Furthermore, we must temper the idea that people appointed by the government or by bodies established by the latter could enjoy, in one form or another, perfect independence. There is no such thing.

Even the autonomy of universities is a privilege granted by the State. In the current form of the bill, the government mandates the chief scientist to act with the independence required by his position. If the person mandated for this purpose does not act in this way, he or she will contravene the law and, in this case, demonstrate incompetence or dishonesty.

However, it turns out that for more than ten years, the function of chief scientist in Quebec has been fulfilled with brilliance, commitment, conviction and rigor and, let us remember, despite changes in government.

To watch on video

source site-44