Published August 26, 2022

Ontario's science table says province plans to create smaller group of advisers

The science table, which has provided guidance and advice to the government and public throughout most of the pandemic, said Friday that it was being dissolved by Public Health Ontario

By Liam Casey and Allison Jones in Toronto

Public Health Ontario is planning to replace Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table with a new, smaller group that will be more constrained, according to a science table memo obtained by The Canadian Press.

The science table's memo to Public Health Ontario, sent this week, sets out a long list of concerns with what they describe as the agency's plan. They write that it will stifle the new group's independence in selecting topics to pursue, not allow for outside scientists to collaborate with them on briefs, and hamper the group's ability to communicate findings to the public.

"Critical issues were raised by the negotiating committee with respect to how broadly accepted concepts of scientific independence are constrained," the memo said.

"Although PHO Executives did state that the scientific members of the new committee could propose topics, that PHO would have veto authority on the agenda."

The science table, which has provided guidance and advice to the government and public throughout most of the pandemic, said Friday that it was being dissolved by Public Health Ontario. However, that agency and the government said the science table's work would actually be continuing.

But according to an Aug. 22 memo sent from a science table negotiating committee, it had been trying to work with Public Health Ontario on a new mandate for the group since it moved under that agency's umbrella in April from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

The science table was initially promised that new terms of reference would be based on its original mandate, the memo said. However, on Aug. 11, the science table's negotiating committee was given a draft for new terms of reference created by Public Health Ontario and the chief medical officer of health. It was not based on any prior document the parties had agreed to, the memo said, and raised several concerns.

After the science table negotiating committee raised those concerns, it was informed by Public Health Ontario that the group was being dissolved, said sources with knowledge of the discussions who did not want to be identified for fear of professional reprisal.

Public Health Ontario said it was still finalizing revised terms of reference and couldn't comment further.

In a statement earlier Friday after the science table said it was still in the process of finalizing a new mandate.

"The new terms of reference establish a mandate that reflects a long-term, sustainable approach and ensures the continued provision of credible and independent scientific and technical public health advice to the province on COVID-19 and future public health emergencies," it wrote.

"Membership will continue to be comprised of independent experts."

Those science table concerns included not being able to select topics, that the new group's name – the Ontario Public Health Emergencies Scientific Advisory Committee – would confuse the public, unclear criteria by which the 15 new members would be chosen, a lack of stipulation that the chair be a scientist, and not being able to let outside scientists co-author briefs.

"(That) will critically limit the ability to involve external scientists and trainees in work products of the table, and undercut norms of scientific transparency and accountability of produced work," the memo said.

The science table wrote in a public letter Friday that Public Health Ontario informed them last week that the science table and its working groups would be dissolved as of Sept. 6. The advisers said that as the table winds down, it will aim to complete existing work.

"The Science Table's work reflects the remarkable dedication of the hundreds of volunteer scientists, physicians and administrators who devoted their time to the effort," they wrote.

"We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to have served Ontario since July of 2020. Many of us will remember our work for the Science Table as some of the most important work we have ever had the chance to do."

Speaking at an unrelated press conference, Premier Doug Ford said he isn't dissolving the science table.

"We're actually transferring it over to public health," he said. "They had an incredible relationship throughout this pandemic. They're going to have a full-time home, rather than be put out there in limbo."

The Ministry of Health said in a statement Friday "the work of the Science Advisory Table" will continue.

The science table's advice and guidance at times during the pandemic have run contrary to government actions, and its former scientific director, Dr. Peter Juni, was particularly outspoken.

Dr. Fahad Razak, who took over the position from Juni this year, said in a statement that he hopes the scientific advice the group provided to the public and decision makers has helped to reduce suffering.

"The COVID-19 pandemic will remain a daunting challenge for the foreseeable future and our health-care system is under extraordinary strain right now," he wrote.

"I hope we can take all the steps necessary to reduce the burden of the pandemic to keep our system functioning in the difficult months ahead."

Banner image: Adalsteinn Brown, former co-chair of Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table, speaks during the daily briefing at Queen’s Park in Toronto on April 1, 2021. The group, which has provided guidance and advice to the government and public throughout most of the pandemic, said Friday that it is being dissolved, but the government said its work will continue. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug.26, 2022.

What do you think of this article?

Have a breaking story?

Share it with us!
Share Your Story

What Barrie's talking about!

From breaking news to the best slice of pizza in town! Get everything Barrie’s talking about delivered right to your inbox every day. Don’t worry, we won’t spam you. We promise :)
Subscription Form
Consent Info

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Central Ontario Broadcasting, 431 Huronia Rd, Barrie, Ontario, CA, You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Related Stories