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.”
Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Queen’s University, and a member of the table, said he does not believe now is the right time to dissolve.
“We did not choose to wind down or dissolve the current science table,” Evans told Global News. “That was the decision made by Public Health Ontario.”
Evans said in April the table fell under Public Health Ontario.
“Ontario has, you know, put together its rationale for basically redeveloping this into an advisory committee using the structure that it has for all kinds of advisory committees that normally exist under Public Health Ontario. So I think — speaking as a member of the science table — if we had stayed as the entity that we are now, just under Public Health Ontario, I think it still has a role to play as we move through this next this next winter.”
Evans said this winter could be a “slightly challenging thing.”
“We’re really going to be able to get a feel for where things are sitting,” he said. “And so it’s not the right time to dissolve (the table), but it’s this solution has been created by Public Health Ontario wanting to move it in a direction that it felt more comfortable with.”
-with files from Global News