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The relationship between science and society under the microscope

Quebec’s chief scientist, Rémi Quirion, talks about the effect of knowledge on society and his role as a “cheerleader” for research.

By PASCALE CASTONGUAY | April 26, 2017

In April, Quebec’s chief scientist, Rémi Quirion, was in Montreal to give a lecture titled Pour une économie du savoir basée sur la science et la recherche (developing a knowledge economy based on science and research). Until his appointment, Dr. Quirion was, among other postings, vice-dean of life sciences and strategic initiatives at McGill University’s faculty of medicine, scientific director of the Douglas Institute Research Centre, and executive director of the International Collaborative Research Strategy for Alzheimer’s Disease at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. University Affairs took the opportunity to get his observations on the field of university research.

University Affairs: How do you define the knowledge economy?

Rémi Quirion: For me, the knowledge economy comprises highly innovative, developing sectors. For example, artificial intelligence is part of the knowledge economy and is becoming an integral part of society. In contrast, iron is still being mined in northern Quebec as it has been for the past 50 years – and there isn’t much added value there. At the other end of the spectrum, we are having to live with the emerging phenomena of radicalization and alternative facts. In a knowledge economy, we should be better able to examine these kinds of things and be much better equipped to face up to them.

UA: Are we on track to become a knowledge society?

RQ: We are not among the leaders worldwide; we are probably closer to the middle of the pack. As a society, in Quebec and in Canada, we see science, research and researchers in a positive light. An appreciation of science is a good basis for going further to create a real knowledge society based on expertise in advanced fields. Is there a direct relationship between investment in research and innovation and the knowledge society? Probably. Countries that invest the highest percentage of their GDP in research and innovation are often those that are closest to a knowledge society.

UA: Why do you you feel there is insufficient awareness of publicly funded research?

RQ: We aren’t doing a good job of selling ourselves. Generally, universities have had some bad press in recent years, particularly in Quebec. Instead of reacting to this, universities have, to some extent, isolated themselves by withdrawing from the public stage. We have begun discussions regarding Quebec’s three research funds (nature and technologies, health, and society and culture, collectively known as Les Fonds de recherches du Québec) to look at ways to increase the awareness of our economic impact and discoveries, which are better known.

UA: What led you to the conclusion that universities need to change?

RQ: It’s vital for universities to be in the vanguard, to educate young people and give them access to quality training. Universities are judged to a great extent on the quality of their teaching and their research, and that is fine. However, to face the important research issues of today, such as climate change and sustainable development, there must be as few silos as possible. The good news is that the majority of top university managers are ready to go in that direction. Reward and promotion systems are not yet aligned with the notion cutting across disciplines. The challenge is to get our colleagues in universities to realize that there is added value in cross-disciplinary collaboration. Perhaps we need to change the way we finance our academic institutions in Quebec or in the rest of Canada, because at present funding is still by discipline.

UA: In what time frame can we hope to see this change take shape?

RQ: I think the transformation will occur in the next few years. And if we don’t make it happen, it will happen anyway, possibly bypassing us. Students are increasingly creating their own curricula. There are more and more programs in which they can cherry-pick courses from the entire catalogue. So, if we don’t bring about the change, departments may lose some of their raison d’être, because students will go elsewhere for the courses they want. I am pretty optimistic that the change will happen within the next 10 years.

UA: You have been Quebec’s chief scientist since 2011. In 2016, the Quebec government gave you a second five-year mandate. What has it been like for you, moving from the world of research to the world of politics?

RQ: I have had a great career. I have been very lucky in terms of research and with my students. My scientific family numbers 75 postdoctoral students who are now all over the world, and that is what I consider my proudest achievement. As chief scientist, I am not conducting any active research, and that is difficult for me because that’s what I’m trained for. Although, in a sense, I am conducting an experiment on Quebec! What I find hard is that I am mandated to give opinions to the provincial government and its ministers, and no more. If they don’t take my advice, in other words, it doesn’t mean I haven’t done my job well.

UA: How do you see your role as chief scientist?

RQ: My main role is to advise the government on research and innovation in all areas. Overall, I see my role as that of a science and research “cheerleader” for the benefit of Quebec’s elected representatives, researchers and general public. My job is not to constantly ask for money, but to try to explain what we (as researchers) do, so that they can understand the added value we bring and what aspects of it can help them in their work. Another of my mandates is to get people from different sectors to work together more. Changes of culture are needed, but I think we are getting there gradually. It’s a very stimulating part of my work.

UA: In 2016, the Government of Canada launched a process aimed at appointing a chief science advisor. What advice would you give him or her?

RQ: It is crucial for this person to create relationships of trust with the government, MPs and senior civil servants as quickly as possible. These connections have to be forged very rapidly. There have been chief scientists in the past who had an impressive business card, but much more than that is needed. It is critical that this person should meet with the Prime Minister from time to time, which has not happened in the past. John Holdren, science advisor to Barack Obama, saw the president almost every week. The appointee needs to be resilient and not get discouraged. They should also have the support of, and remain very close to, the research community. If they lose credibility with the scientific community, they will be of little use. This is why the government must appoint a high-level researcher who is recognized by the research community.

UA: Is there an association of chief scientists?

RQ: The U.K. has had a chief scientist for the past 50 years. The original model is British. We are a small group. I proposed an initial meeting of world chief scientists. Steps were taken towards a first meeting in Montreal, as part of the International Economic Forum of the Americas. Subsequently, matters were formalized with a meeting of chief scientists and their equivalents. The International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) was set up in New Zealand. This group meets to share best practices for providing advice to elected representatives. Having the network is useful: when you need help, there is someone you can call. We have launched mini-schools to train young people interested in the work of chief scientist. About a month ago, such a session was held in Dakar with about 40 participants.

UA: In the field of research, how important is it to bring students into the decision-making process?

RQ: The upcoming generation has always been very important for me. From the outset, students must be given an important role in the boards of directors of research funds, for example through the appointment of a student member to sit on their boards. The three students who were appointed to the Fonds de recherche du Québec subsequently recruited other students to form a multi-sectoral committee to work on issues such as the funding of master’s bursaries. This year, they are looking into the situation of postdoctoral students. At every board meeting, time is set aside for a report from the student committee, which has proved very popular. They wrote an opinion piece proposing that students also be appointed to boards of directors at the federal level. However, there is some reticence in the face of this idea, which I don’t really understand.

UA: You are one of the nine members of the expert panel on Canada’s Fundamental Science Review (PDF), whose report was released on April 10. What can you tell us about the content of this report?

RQ: I am optimistic that the Canadian government will consider some of the recommendations and that reinvestment is needed in various places. Significant reinvestment in certain sectors should help ensure that Canada remains as competitive as possible. I think that a number of people will be a little disappointed: they will read the report in their office or lab and say, “is that all?” There is no need to scrap everything — some things are working very well. It was important for the report’s credibility that it come out shortly after the budget.

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