While the statute provided that the council could undertake specific studies at ministerial request, its practice was to determine its own study program, with virtual autonomy from ministerial direction. The council's published work consists of signed background studies expressing the views of the authors, but certified by council for reliability and methodology; formal council reports and statements expressing the consensus of members and usually recommending actions to governments and other parties; and proceedings of workshops and conferences.
The council's judgements derived their legitimacy from the fact that its members were broadly representative of the Canadian scientific community, in both the academic and private sectors.
The council was closed in 1993. Over the 26 years of its operation, it held different perceptions of its primary role, depending on the beliefs of its various chairmen and members. It most often saw itself as a national adviser, transcending purely federal considerations. It also assumed an early warning function to alert governments and society to emerging opportunities and problems. It promoted science education and university research, especially basic research, against government predispositions to cut budgets. Occasionally, it essayed an international role.
Under its responsibility for enhancing public awareness of science and technology policy, it undertook a public discussion role through stimulating or organizing conferences and other meetings aimed at professionals.
Probably its most enduring preoccupation and greatest contributions were in promoting the Conserver Society and in advocating a national industrial strategy. The council often argued against the mainstream of advice from other agencies, public and private, and sometimes against the apparent inclinations of federal ministers. It was often a catalyst for action.
The council's recommendations were more often effective in helping to create a policy climate than in providing specific blueprints for government action.
Since its inception, the council's chairmen have been Omond Solandt, Roger Gaudry, Joseph Kates, Claude Fortier, Stuart L. Smith, Geraldine Kenney-Wallace and Janet Halliwell.