Liam Casey and Allison Jones, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, August 28, 2022 9:21 am EDT
Public Health Ontario is planning to replace Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Board with a new, smaller panel that will be more limited, according to a science board memo obtained by The Canadian Press.
The Ontario Public Health Science Board’s memo, sent this week, lays out a long list of concerns with what they describe as the agency’s plan. They write that this would stifle the new group’s independence in selecting topics to pursue, would not allow outside scientists to collaborate with them on summaries, and would hinder the group’s ability to communicate findings to the public.
“Critical issues were raised by the negotiating committee about how widely accepted concepts of scientific independence are limited,” the memo said.
“Although PHO leaders stated that scientific members of the new committee could propose topics, that PHO would have veto authority over the agenda.”
The science board, which has provided guidance and advice to government and the public throughout much of the pandemic, said Friday it was being disbanded by Public Health Ontario. However, that agency and the government said work on the scientific table would continue.
But according to an Aug. 22 memo sent by a scientific roundtable negotiating committee, he 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 School of Public Health. Lana. at the University of Toronto.
The science board was initially promised that the new terms of reference would be based on its original mandate, the memo said. However, on August 11, the scientific roundtable negotiating committee was given a draft of the new terms of reference created by Public Health Ontario and the chief medical officer of health. It was not based on any preliminary document agreed upon by the parties, the memo said, and raised some concerns.
After the scientific panel’s negotiating committee raised those concerns, it was informed by Ontario Public Health that the group was disbanding, said sources with knowledge of the discussions who did not want to be identified for fear of professional retaliation.
Public Health Ontario said it was still finalizing the revised terms of reference and could not comment further.
In a statement earlier Friday after the scientific roundtable, he said he 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 reliable and independent scientific and technical public health advice to the province on COVID-19 and future public health emergencies,” he wrote.
“The membership will continue to be composed of independent experts.”
These concerns of the scientific panel included not selecting topics, that the name of the new group – the Ontario Public Health Emergencies Scientific Advisory Committee – would confuse the public, unclear criteria by which the 15 new members would be selected, a lack of definition that chairman to be a scientist, and not being able to allow external scientists to co-author summaries.
“(This) will critically limit the ability to include external scientists and trainees in the table’s work products and reduce the rates of scientific transparency and accountability of the work produced,” the memo said.
The science board wrote in a public letter Friday that Public Health Ontario informed them last week that the science board and its working groups would be disbanded as of Sept. 6. Councilors said that as the sign is completed, it will aim to complete existing work.
“The work of the Science Table reflects the extraordinary dedication of the hundreds of volunteer scientists, physicians, and administrators who gave their time to the effort,” they wrote.
“We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to serve Ontario beginning in July 2020. Many of us will remember our work for the Science Table as some of the most important work we’ve ever had the opportunity to do.”
Speaking at an unrelated news conference, Premier Doug Ford said he is not releasing the science board.
“We’re actually moving it into public health,” he said. “They’ve had an incredible relationship throughout this pandemic. They’re going to have a full-time home instead of being put out there in limbo.”
The Ministry of Health said in a statement on Friday that “the work of the Science Advisory Board” will continue.
The scientific board’s advice and guidance at times during the pandemic have been at odds with the government’s actions, and its former scientific director, Dr. Peter June, was particularly open.
Dr. Fahad Razak, who took over from June this year, said in a statement that he hopes the scientific advice the group has provided to the public and decision-makers has helped reduce suffering.
“The COVID-19 pandemic will remain a formidable challenge for the foreseeable future, and our health care system is under tremendous strain right now,” he wrote.
“I hope we can take all the necessary steps to reduce the burden of the pandemic to keep our system functioning in the difficult months ahead.”