New Premier Of Ontario Starts By Sacking Its First Ever Chief Scientist

Crowd at 'Ford On Notice' rally. Doug Ford was recently elected Premier of Ontario and interest groups gathered together because they are worried about his policies, June 26, 2018. Paul McKinnon/Shutterstock

On the fourth day after taking office, the new Premier of Ontario Doug Ford has sacked the province's chief scientist Dr Molly Shoichet. The move was not a campaign promise, but apparently took priority over most things that were. No reason has been given, and although a spokesman told the Globe and Mail the position will be filled with someone new, no timeline has been provided. Sound familiar?

Chief Scientist is an impressive title for a position whose job is to represent scientists to the government and explain the state of scientific research on topics that could influence the Premier's decisions. At a Canadian national level, the equivalent position is called Chief Science Adviser, while in the United States it is known more awkwardly as the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, a position which Donald Trump has failed to fill since taking office. When the previous Ontario government led by Kathleen Wynne established the position, however, they chose the title used in Australia at national and state levels.

The days when a single scientist could be on top of the research in every field probably didn't last much past Isaac Newton. However, Chief Scientists/Chief Scientific Advisers usually now only have excellent contacts they can draw on when discussing matters outside their field. Moreover, the best of them are adept at assessing the quality of research elsewhere, and being able to distinguish between mainstream theories, credible minorities, and cranks, even in areas they never studied.

How much difference having a talented figure in these positions makes to scientific research has never really be assessed, but there is widespread support among scientists for the idea. Creating the position was taken as a sign of Wynne's commitment to science.

Consequently, considerable alarm has been expressed on social media about the decision, particularly since Ford has already scrapped Ontario's primary climate program, and canceled all media subscriptions, including presumably newspapers and scientific journals.

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Shoichet's own work is in tissue engineering and personalized medicine. She has pioneered techniques for delivering drugs across the blood-brain barrier, with the potential to limit the damage from strokes. Among her many positions has been Chief Scientist of the delightfully named Creative Destruction Lab. As the only person to be a fellow of all three of Canada's National Academies and a winner of multiple awards, her sacking could certainly not be for any lack of scientific accomplishment.

It's perhaps too early to conclude that Trump's war on science has spread north. However, it would not be entirely surprising if it has. The previous Canadian government of Stephen Harper not only slashed funding to scientific research, but attempted to ban scientists from discussing their work with the public without permission, and oversaw the destruction of crucial records going back more than a century. 

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