Published online 30 January 2008 | Nature 451, 505 (2008) | doi:10.1038/451505a

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Canada abolishes its national science adviser

After just four years, government axes post.

Science adviser Arthur Carty has retired.Science adviser Arthur Carty has retired.

The Canadian government is closing its Office of the National Science Advisor at the end of March, after just four years of service. The top-level science and technology adviser post will also be abolished in the move; it was already sidelined in 2006 when the new conservative government reassigned the adviser's responsibilities from reporting to the prime minister to reporting to the industry minister.

“I'm dismayed that the office is disappearing after four years and that it hasn't become a permanent fixture in science and technology in Canada,” says Arthur Carty, who has held the post since its inception. Carty decided to retire from public office when he was told that the government was discontinuing the position.

Industry Canada said that the decision to phase out the office followed the establishment of the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) in June 2007. “The STIC will function as a single committee, providing the government with independent and integrated advice on science and technology,” it said. It consists of a chair, Howard Alper, a chemistry professor at the University of Ottawa who is former president of the Royal Society of Canada, and 17 members, including university leaders, scientists, industry executives and government ministers.

Canadian scientists are undecided as to whether the council can replace the role and function of a national science adviser. “I don't think what they have now in its place is any more likely to succeed than anything else,” says David Anderson, director of the Guelph Institute for the Environment in Ontario and former federal environment minister.

“The jury is still out,” says Elizabeth Dowdeswell, chair of the scientific advisory committee of the Council of Canadian Academies in Ottawa, Ontario.

Some scientists have criticized the move as evidence of the government's lack of interest in science and understanding of how it is done. Anderson says that Carty must have had a hard time giving science advice while the administration was trying to discredit the science of climate change.

Carty is a British-born organometallic chemist who ran the National Research Council Canada from 1994 to 2004. When Prime Minister Paul Martin revived the science adviser post to harness Canada's science potential and offer insight on international science issues, he appointed Carty. It was the first such post in Canada for 30 years (see Nature 427 , 91 2004). The office's small budget and vague mandate soured its chance of success from the start. Its finances, including salaries, hovered around Can$1 million (US$1 million), and the office didn't secure any permanent staff to help Carty until its third year.

During his tenure, Carty spearheaded the 2005 creation of the Council of Canadian Academies, like the US National Academy of Sciences. The council provides independent assessments of the science underlying key issues, but does not make recommendations to the government. Carty helped to establish Canada as a leader in the International Polar Year, ensuring that it provided $150 million in funding. He also represented Canada at the Carnegie Group's meetings of science ministers and advisers.

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But some work, including a national consultation on how major science initiatives should seek funding, “never saw the light of day”, Carty told Nature. “I don't really think the government has understood the role that a national science adviser — or that office — can play.”

The news comes shortly after the government sacked Linda Keen, the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the country's independent nuclear watchdog. Critics have said that Keen was fired for “doing her job”. The move suggests that the independence of advisers and committees is on shaky ground, says Anderson. 

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