Canadian ethicists recognize the critical importance of science and research
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that the connections between science and policy need to be reconsidered
On May 25, 2021, Member of Parliament Kirsty Duncan advanced Motion 38 to create a new Standing Committee for Science and Research (SCSR). The motion received unanimous support from all parties with a vote of 331-0. It recognizes that science and research are of critical importance and essential ingredients to informed decision-making across the economic, environmental and social challenges in Canada.
The SCSR is the 25th standing committee — the others span a range of priorities including health, heritage, human resources, industry, science and technology. Despite the breadth of topics, the mandate of only one standing committee — Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics — includes ethical issues, and then only in the limited context of access to information and privacy.
We suggest that critical ethical thinking, scholarship, and action have a role to play on every committee, especially the SCSR.
Consider the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that challenged straightforward accounts of evidence-informed, science-led policy-making in Canada. Scientific uncertainty prevailed early on, and even though the research community organized and has produced rigorous studies, considerable knowledge gaps persist.
Many of the key policy decisions during the pandemic have taken place in the context of scientific evidence that is underdetermined and socially contested: dosing intervals for COVID-19 vaccines, whether to continue with public health and social measures and how long to quarantine returning travelers.
Less visible, although no less prevalent, are the profound bioethical and governance issues surrounding emerging biotechnologies. A few examples include germline gene editing, mitochondrial transfer, implantation of electrodes deep into the brain for psychiatric and movement disorders, and unprecedented capabilities offered by artificial intelligence. Jurisdictions have taken different regulatory approaches to these, often based on both existing legal frameworks and sociocultural values.
On a global level, national science academies of the G7 nations have outlined the pressing issues they believe should be urgently addressed: creating a net zero climate resilient world, tackling biodiversity loss, and improving the use of data.
The international trend towards convergence research integrates knowledge, methods and expertise from different disciplines to form novel frameworks to catalyze scientific discovery and innovation. It recognizes that, fundamentally, science and innovation strategies need to pay attention to social license and ethical principles.
Integrating ethical, legal, social, cultural and political values into evidence gathering and synthesis is fraught with challenges. Answers to questions about which take precedence, how to adjudicate facts and values, and how to translate multidisciplinary resources into actionable strategies are vitally needed.
Expert ethics committees, commissions and councils for science and research have existed for centuries. Today, there are more than 200 commissions devoted to bioethics around the world. Their mandates have evolved beyond ethical issues in research to take on broader issues in health policy, science and technology, and engineering. No two are identical. Some respond only to direct requests for advice from their government; others have authority to identify their own agenda. Some countries locate their commissions outside of government, while others report to an executive office, department or legislature.
Canada has not had such a commission per se, but has convened other bodies whose responsibilities and work have functioned in similar ways.
Evidence-based policy development emphasizes the value-neutral goal of scientific reasoning and plays a central role in making decisions under conditions of uncertainty.
However, this approach ignores the fact that social values play direct and indirect roles in the conduct of scientific inquiry. Values can relate to how resources are allocated and decisions prioritized regarding the focus of science and the qualities and characteristics that increase the credibility and trustworthiness of claims and choices.
Guided by critical ethical reflection, values are needed at all levels of policy making. A national commitment to ethics guidance for science and research will ensure coordinated decision-making rather than ad hoc or opportunistic ones. Such guidance can be realized immediately with a clear ethics presence on the SCSR, and perhaps independently in its own right as a standing committee in the future.