Fellow in Focus: John Smol, FRSC

In this issue of Council E-News, we speak with Dr. John Smol, Co-Director of the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory (PEARL) at Queen’s University in Kingston.

 Recognized by his peers as a highly cited researcher, as well as being Canada’s top mid-career scientific mentor, Dr. Smol is no novice when it comes to scientific acumen.  He has been involved with the Council for a number of years and has served in many different capacities.  For example, he has been a peer review monitor for two different assessments and an active member of the Council’s Scientific Advisory Committee.  His long-time engagement with the Council has given him a unique perspective on the evolution of the Council, and the impact its evidence-based assessments have had on informing scientific policy in Canada.

 In this edition of the Fellow in Focus, Dr. Smol explains why he has chosen to continue to work with the Council of Canadian Academies and why the Council’s ‘legacy of experience’ has much to offer policy makers, scientists and Canadians.

How important is the Council’s role in informing public policy development in Canada?

I believe the Council’s work is steadily gaining influence.  In some respects, we entered a “scientific information deficit” when the work of the Council began.  Of course there were other avenues for politicians and policy makers to get level-headed and unbiased assessments, but with the Council’s work, this has greatly accelerated and can be done in a highly professional manner. What the Council does is use science and evidence – not opinions and wishful thinking.  I believe the Council’s influence has steadily penetrated the offices of our elected officials and policy makers.

You have served as a peer review monitor for two different Council assessments, and are an active member of the Scientific Advisory Committee, where you provide advice on the composition of panels and scientific insight regarding potential assessments. What attracted you to being a part of these different facets of the Council’s process?

Much of the science done is this country is paid for by tax payers.  It is our duty to give the products of this science back to our citizens, in a format that is usable by policy makers and politicians. The Council is able to do that.

Throughout my career, I have been dismayed at how little of this country’s and the world’s best science has penetrated policy decisions.  And this is especially true in my area – environmental and ecological issues. Of course, science has always made a difference, but science has never, in my opinion, been used as effectively as it should be.  In my area of environmental research, often science brings forward unpleasant and sometimes economically less-appealing realities. But the cost of ignoring science is often much higher than making the evidence-based decisions in the first place.  The Council is an important vehicle to seeing science used in the development of public policy.

Based on your experience with the Council in the aforementioned roles, and reflecting on your other professional experiences, what do you think is the value of evidence-based assessments? What do you think is unique and/or important about the Council’s expert assessment process?

What I believe is especially important about the Council is the care and work that goes into selecting the panel members and the chairs – so as to make sure we have the proper make-up to deliver the best assessment. We are not naïve to think everyone will go into a panel with a completely unbiased view of what some of the results should be. But by choosing the top people who are known to be flexible, willing to listen and learn, and ready to work towards a common goal, we now have a proven record to show that this can lead to important and exciting results.  I think the quality of the assessments completed to date attest to the Council’s winning formula.

Can you compare your experience at the Council with experiences you have had with other similar organizations?  How did they differ; what was similar?

I have worked on a number of panels, but all were mainly ad hoc panels, suggested by an agency or organization.  We typically had no legacy of experiences (or a professional and permanent staff to help us!) and we had sharp learning curves for each of our projects, which all disappeared again once the report was finished. Given the highly professional and dedicated staff at the Council, and the collective learning experiences from previous assessments, we don’t have to begin from scratch with each assessment. We have collectively learned from our mistakes and our victories.  This makes the work of the Council extremely efficient.

What do you think is important for our readers to know about Council assessments that they might not already know?

All panel members and peer reviewers are volunteers -no honoraria, no salaries.  They are very busy people.  It is a credit to the Council that they have repeatedly and consistently attracted highly professional, competent and engaged experts who find satisfaction in getting an important job done well.

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