By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist
Chief Scientists and Chief Science Advisors hold unique roles in federal, provincial or territorial jurisdictions across Canada, serving as trusted authorities on scientific matters. Through broad knowledge networks, these senior specialists act in the public interest and provide the public and elected officials the best available advice on relevant and emerging scientific topics.
In the Canadian context, Alberta has shown leadership in this area since 2016 when Dr. Fred Wrona was appointed Chief Scientist for Alberta Environment and Parks — the first position of its kind in the Ministry. The role of Chief Scientist was established in legislation through amendments to the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, representing a commitment to transparent and unbiased scientific reporting on the condition of Alberta’s environment.
Dr. Wrona brings more than 30 years of experience in the scientific community to the role, and the development and implementation of programs to monitor, evaluate and report on the condition of Alberta’s environment. As a champion of science, he promotes evidence-informed decision-making when it comes to the policies, programs and management decisions that impact Alberta’s natural resources.
Below, the Chief Scientist answers questions about progress made since 2016, and what the future holds for environmental monitoring in Alberta.
What has changed in Alberta’s environmental monitoring programs over the past three years?
FW: We’ve been systematically updating our program designs, targeting specific information needs and objectives while being efficient and effective in light of limited resources. For example, we updated our river monitoring program by reaffirming station placements across various watersheds and expanding monitoring in areas where we had limited information.
We’ve also run our programs through our two independent advisory panels, the Science Advisory Panel and the Indigenous Wisdom Advisory Panel, with national and international experts who are highly recognized authorities in their fields. There’s no textbook written on how to do this, but we’re looking at opportunities to braid and utilize multiple knowledge systems such as conventional western science, Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous wisdom.
We’ve released the Five-Year (2019-2024) Science Strategy – a first for this department – informing the public, internal and external science partners about the collaborative approach, tools, processes and priority areas of Alberta’s environmental science program. As part of the Science Strategy, I’ve been working very hard on fostering partnerships and collaborative opportunities, for example with the major universities in Alberta. I’ve co-located part of our program with the University of Calgary and created a Centre of Excellence in environmental monitoring and cumulative effects assessments.
We are also developing science integrity guidelines for what it means to be a practicing scientist within Alberta Environment and Parks. This highlights the importance of not only science, but what it takes to ensure that we demonstrate credibility and integrity in our science moving forward. I’m quite keen on that.
What has changed, over the past three years, specific to environmental monitoring in the oil sands region?
FW: The Oil Sands Monitoring (OSM) Program is one of the largest environmental monitoring programs in the world, monitoring and reporting on the environmental state of the oil sands region led by the governments of Alberta and Canada.
It’s complex because we’re dealing with air, water, land, biological and ecological resources, and engaging with First Nation and Metis communities in the affected areas. We’re also dealing with public concerns and perceptions both within the region and around the world.
One of the biggest changes in the last several years has been focusing the science design so that the data it yields helps address key questions from stakeholders. We don’t just monitor for monitoring’s sake – the information has to be relevant.
The recognition that Indigenous participation in the design and implementation of the program is also absolutely essential. We created an oversight committee that’s multi-interest and multi-stakeholder, involving governments, First Nation and Métis communities, and industry. Their job is to make sure the program meets approval requirements, and just as importantly, that it addresses whether regulations we have in place are protecting the environment.
As Chief Scientist, how important is connecting scientific information to the public and decision-makers?
FW: A really good medical doctor can make the implications and consequences of a complicated treatment understandable to a patient – even if it’s complex information. Environmental science communication is a similar scenario.
We need solid, proper, peer-reviewed and technically-robust papers and analyses that speak to what the science and data really mean. But when I try to explain those pieces of science to the public – or a tougher critic, my mother – how I convey that information will determine whether I succeed in getting the point across. How we translate information to the public and decision-makers matters.
We’re looking at developing accessible communications products using digital tools that can convey highly technical information in ways that are understandable and digestible. We’re also working on making our data systems more directly accessible outside the Ministry, so people can access them openly and run their own queries. Building trust is about being transparent – providing information to the public, other researchers and stakeholders so they can derive their own conclusions.
A final area is training. How can you be an effective communicator as a scientist? We ran a special workshop on science communication and we’re excited to continue to offer and expand on that to support our science community in more effectively communicating information.
What are you most proud of when you look back over the past three years?
FW: I’m really excited about utilizing what I consider more out of the box thinking for delivering our programs. Being open brings in innovation, creativity and excitement to the people involved in the programs. Networking and engaging with other people that have a passion for knowledge is a win-win for all of us.
I’m also pleased to see that people are curious about the role of the Chief Scientist and how we can help facilitate the way science is being done in the department. We’re getting more phone calls and we’re becoming more visible. Outside organizations are also asking more about working with us. I’m part of a national network working with the federal Chief Scientists and they’re very interested in Alberta.
The way our office was set up under legislation is unique in Canada, and internationally. This office doesn’t just have an advisory function, but a legislated responsibility for reporting. That puts a very different impetus on us. Alberta is leading on this front.
What opportunities and priorities do you see for environmental monitoring in Alberta moving forward?
FW: We’re in a new era of communication, but also of miscommunication and misinformation. We have to play a very important role of sharing good, factual research and ensuring it isn’t open to misinterpretation and distortion.
Timeliness is also critical. Data and data systems without qualified interpretation isn’t helpful, so we need to build rapid processes. For example, some of our new monitoring systems are sensor-based and can get information to the public and stakeholders in real-time. It’s challenging, takes innovative thinking, investment and resources, and we need to look at that.
People are keen to get engaged in the environmental issues and agenda of how we move forward. It requires standards, protocols and procedures to effectively use data we produce out of that kind of relationship and we are working on that.
I’ve worked hard on fostering the importance of knowledge networks, recognizing that we need to build on science and research strengths, both within and outside of government. We will continue integrating internal and external knowledge networks to help achieve our outcomes.