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IN MY OPINION

A graduate student committee could help inform Canada’s future chief science advisor

Patterned after the existing Quebec model, such a committee would be an essential bridge between the chief science advisor and student researchers.

By JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BÉLISLE-PIPON ET AL | March 20, 2017

The announcement to create the position of a chief science advisor (CSA) for Canada by Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan has been well received by the scientific community. Bringing science to the forefront of the public sphere is a goal to be applauded, as is that of recognizing and valuing the contributions of research communities within Canadian society. In particular, the mandate of the future CSA will be to ensure more effective public sharing of federal research data and findings, and to promote the incorporation of scientific knowledge into public policy and political decision-making.

However, among all the information available regarding this newly created position, there is no indication as to how the next CSA, in carrying out their mandate, will consider the contributions or needs of the next generation of researchers. Student researchers are the root of Canadian science. Because of the quality and importance of their direct involvement in the progress of research and innovation, they are key actors in making Canada a leading nation in scientific research. It would be wise and strategic to incorporate the involvement of emerging scientists into the new position of CSA. Quebec’s practice is a convincing and inspiring example of this!

The intersectoral student committee of the Fonds de recherche du Quebec (FRQ, the province’s primary research funding body), of which we are members, could serve as an exemplary model on which to formalize the involvement and role of student researchers within the governance structures overseeing Canadian research bodies. Made up of graduate students from various fields, disciplines and institutions, the committee reports directly to the chief scientist of Quebec, Rémi Quirion. The committee was created in 2014 because of Dr. Quirion’s desire to be directly advised by active members of the student research community, who are themselves the best suited to communicate their own needs. This advisory role allows Dr. Quirion to be assisted in the development of strategic measures aimed at promoting accessibility to higher education, strengthening the excellence of student research, and build substantial outreach initiatives for the promotion of this research.

Through our experience and the support we’ve received to fulfill our role as advisors, we are convinced that such active contribution of student researchers can benefit Canadian society as a whole. Taking into account the point of view of student researchers allows Quebec’s chief scientist, and the three board directors who chair each of the three funds that make up the FRQ, to elaborate action plans that reflect the needs and values of the next generation of scientists. This approach favours the development and advancement of scientific research, as well as its democratization. Additionally, the members of the intersectoral student committee gain valuable professional skills in matters of decision-making and institutional governance structures.

Since its creation, the intersectoral student committee has produced a total of eight advisory reports presented to either Quebec’s chief scientist, provincial ministers or within public consultations. Moreover, its members organize an annual in-person consultation with many student researchers from several Quebec universities. The opinions and suggestions gathered during these consultations directly feed into the committee’s work, guiding them in carrying out their role as student advisors. By such means, the committee contributes in an active manner to the governance of the FRQ. It is also important to draw attention to the direct communication that takes place between the committee and the chief scientist; this proximity is a key factor which allows the committee’s work to have a real impact on the community of student researchers.

We are convinced that the establishment of a federal graduate student advisory committee would facilitate communication with the Canadian student-research community, and would ensure the dissemination and promotion of the scientific results that stem from their work. In addition, involving student researchers in decision-making processes is a training and learning opportunity towards proper governance. This point should not to be overlooked, since several graduates will eventually be called to work in research groups or centres, in public or private organizations, or to act within institutional decision-making structures.

At a time when the Canadian government is preparing to welcome a new chief science advisor, our hope is that its work and endeavours will benefit from an active and formal participation of student researchers. Reflecting on the role of the CSA and its integration into the Canadian science framework is a unique opportunity to ensure that the community of Canadian researchers be properly represented as a whole. Hence, in this context, giving a proper place to the next generation of student researchers proves to be the obvious and even essential choice.

The above article was co-written by Jean-Christophe Bélisle-Pipon, a doctoral candidate in bioethics at Université de Montréal; Dorothée Charest Belzile, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Université Laval; Marie-Pierre Cossette, a doctoral candidate in neurosciences at Concordia University; Olivier Lemieux, a doctoral candidate in education policy and management at Université Laval; Simon Massé a doctoral candidate in environmental sciences at Université du Québec à Rimouski; and Madison Rilling, a doctoral candidate in physics, also at Université Laval. All are members of the intersectoral student committee of the Fonds de recherche du Québec.

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