Canada needs a Chief Research and Knowledge Advisor

Monday, March 7, 2016


It has been exciting to see the Canadian government make progress on its knowledge agenda, beginning with the reinstatement of the long-form census. The Federation is thrilled to be participating in another exciting development: the creation of a new senior research advisor in the federal government. The Federation recently submitted its recommendations to Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan for the creation of a Chief Research and Knowledge Advisor.

In their 2015 election campaign, the Liberal party committed to creating a new Chief Science Officer. As a new government, they’ve so far followed through on that promise, with the prime minister mandating Minister Duncan to create the post. The Federation strongly supports this project, and we have submitted a set of recommendations that we feel can help make Canada’s research-advisory system the best in the world.

A mandate for all research

Our primary recommendation is that the new research advisor work to ensure that evidence from all research that can support good public policy be considered by decision-makers in a meaningful way. The advisor should not exclude any research disciplines that can help policy makers make more informed, responsible decisions. It would be a mistake for a Chief Science Advisor to limit their focus to a narrow understanding of “science,” a word commonly used to describe mainly natural and technical disciplines.

This is especially true in the context of government, whose responsibilities include such issues as building reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, welcoming and integrating refugees into communities across the country, adapting to the challenges of climate change, and so on. Human behaviour, social interactions, community systems and cultural values are at the heart of all of these issues. The evidence from human-focused research disciplines can and should inform important public policy decisions. We feel that this should be at the core of the new research advisor’s mandate, and that the government should recognize this more inclusive approach by titling the position “Chief Research and Knowledge Advisor.”

That evidence and knowledge needs to come from Canada’s well-developed research communities, which include universities, scholarly associations and individual researchers. We also strongly recommend that the advisor welcome and include traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples in a meaningful way. The chief research advisor does not need to be an expert in all topics. It is far more important that they be an effective convenor—able to get the right people with the right expertise in front of the right decision-makers at the right point of the policy-development process.

Good research advice takes more than one person

It’s important that the new research advisor have the right mandate, but it’s also vital that they be effective at carrying it out. We actually know a lot about what makes research advisory systems effective, thanks to the experience of other countries. One of the most important lessons is that you need more than a chief advisor; you need an advisory system. We are recommending that the chief advisor be supported by a network of research advisors in all major federal departments. Experience from the UK and New Zealand in particular, has shown the wisdom of this approach. We also recommend the chief advisor develop an ongoing dialogue with research advisors in other countries and those in the provinces and territories, with the hope that more such positions develop over time.

Fundamentally, creating an effective research advisory system requires getting a lot of ingredients right. You need a broad, inclusive mandate so that all research disciplines can contribute to good public policy. You need cross-government network of research advisors to bring together the right information. You need a chief advisor set at a level of government where they have the independence and impact they’ll need to be effective, including ensuring transparency of government research and knowledge systems You need to give the advisor the resources they’ll need to do their job. And you need a process to ensure that evidence from research is used in a meaningful way in the policy development.

We don’t expect all of these elements to be worked out overnight. Many of them will take time to develop. But we have an exciting chance in 2016 to make a good start. In time, Canada can have a world-leading research advisory system that will help us achieve the kind of informed, responsible and innovative decision-making we’ll need for a more knowledge-dependent future.


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