The Essential Role of Public Sector Scientists

Federal scientists are specifically employed to provide impartial advice and protect the public interest.

Yesterday’s post provides a fine example of how difficult it can be to identify scientific consensus. While some neurologists have vehemently opposed the CCSVI-MS hypothesis, others with relevant expertise have been less sure. This poses a problem. How can governments act in a manner consistent with the principles of evidence-based decision making while scientific debate continues? To whom should they turn for advice?

The Values and Ethics Code for public servants was updated by the Harper government in 2012.
The Values and Ethics Code for public servants was updated by the Harper government in 2012.

This question was actually resolved decades ago. Providing decision-makers with impartial advice is the key function of government departments and the scientists they employ. It’s not just an ideal. It’s explicitly stated in the federal government’s Values and Ethics Code which requires public servants to

“[provide] decision makers with all the information, analysis and advice they need, always striving to be open, candid and impartial”


“[take] all possible steps to prevent and resolve any real, apparent or potential conflicts of interest between their official responsibilities and their private affairs in favour of the public interest”.

As such, the Code defines a fundamental role for public sector scientists in the functioning of democracy. They are the only scientists who are employed specifically to provide impartial advice and to protect the public interest above all else.

The current version of the Code was introduced by the Harper government in 2012.1 The deep cuts the Harper government made to federal science programs should therefore be seen for what they were: An attempt to remove objective evidence as a basis for policy.

Will the new Liberal government reverse this trend? I have noted before that it will take considerable time to rebuild the federal government’s science capacity. To their credit, the Liberals have said many good things about the need for science. Will they back up their words with action in their first budget?

  1. A brief history: The Auditor General recommended the development of set of values and ethics principles for the public sector in 2000 (see line 12.83). The Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service became official policy in 2003. The 2012 Code is an apparent replacement of the earlier version.