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Science must move beyond marches to impact policy

Protests like the March for Science can be cathartic, but Canada’s science community and government should both ditch spin and open the lines of communication.

By TIM LOUGHEED | May 15, 2017

A good protest can be cathartic and satisfying, but it does not solve the problem at hand. That was certainly the case in last month’s March for Science, a high-profile public outcry for broader recognition of science’s value to society. While organizers referred to the events that took place in hundreds of cities around the world as a “celebration” of that value, the air of complaint and crisis was inescapable.

The critical tone was warranted, given the potential for government research budgets in the U.S. and Canada to remain tight or even shrink in the foreseeable future. If nothing else, such constraints slow the pace of work in science and technology, perhaps reducing the output of research publications as well as ultimately undermining the technical foundations of products or services that could benefit us in more tangible ways. Even so, in the lead-up to the marches, many members of the scientific community worried about the political implications of lodging a protest that might be perceived as a self-interested bid to secure funding.

Photo courtesy of Evidence for Democracy.

According to Sir Peter Gluckman, chief science advisor to the prime minister of New Zealand, they are right to be worried. He has regularly described for Canadian audiences the delicate balance between defending the importance of science as an element of public policy, and defending the budgets that sustain the livelihoods of his colleagues in the research community.

“Science advice is neither science nor policy,” he insists, arguing that to remain trusted and credible in the eyes of public officials, he must also remain at arm’s length from both political and scientific circles.

In contrast, a formal protest offers no such objectivity, which is undoubtedly why the March for Science prompted some conflicted emotions among participants and non-participants alike. This unease speaks to a more difficult challenge, namely the very limited lines of regular communication between the scientific community and government in general.

This assertion might surprise individual researchers, who invest enormous amounts of time and energy describing their work to government granting agencies of one sort or another. Here scientists make earnest, often valiant claims about the worth of their work to Canadians, but these efforts are so shielded by layers of bureaucracy as to be all but invisible to the people charting the course of the country’s science and technology policies. Seldom does a working researcher ever get a chance to speak directly with such people, although those rare occasions can be crucial to changing minds.

The need to make this kind of interaction a regular occurrence is a recurring theme at the annual general meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the professional organization that publishes the journal Science. The attendant discussions were especially strident at this year’s gathering in Boston, which took place just a few weeks after the Trump administration entered office. This is where the March for Science was spawned, with the help of many conference sessions outlining the ethical and political niceties of sounding off against a government that looked ready to ignore scientific evidence in such fundamental ventures as economic, health, or environmental programs. A trial run even took place just down the street from the convention centre at historic Copley Square, where protesters honed their powerful rhetoric along with wry placard-writing skills.

These exchanges also prompted many references to Canada, which was cast as the veteran of a similar conflict between its scientific community and the former Harper government. Despite the appeal of this comparison, however, Canadians themselves were on hand to clarify how such conflict arises in the first place.

“Science is spun, and we need to make sure the scientific process is trustworthy,” said Timothy Caulfield, a University of Alberta law professor, during a panel discussion on the role of evidence-based science in an age where information is dominated by social media. Grant applicants spin science to make their work look as fund-worthy as possible; bureaucrats spin science to enhance the prominence of programs they manage; private sector bodies spin science to suit the priorities of their businesses; and above all, celebrities at the forefront of popular culture spin science to mass audiences, touting personal agendas ranging from unlikely quests for eternal youth to unwarranted suspicion of vaccines.

“Pop culture matters and the scientific community has got to become part of the conversation,” he stated. “We need to be on social media, we need to be writing in the popular press, we need to be talking to science journalists.”

If that sounds like a bid to add more items to the already overwhelming to-do lists of most researchers, Mr. Caulfield was not apologizing for it. The alternative – where public opinion and government funding twist in unpredictable winds generated by ill-informed stars on platforms like Twitter – is unacceptable.

Nor is the problem particularly new, as another panelist pointed out. Maryse Lassonde, president of the Royal Society of Canada, described that organization’s frustrating, century-long attempts to build the kind of bridges with government that national academies in other countries frequently enjoy.

The result of this kind of relationship can be found in some unlikely places, such as G7 scientific statements. Dr. Lassonde explained that each G7 meeting is accompanied by a parallel gathering of scientists from member countries, who deliberate on a chosen theme, circulate ideas within their respective national academies, then assemble a final report for publication.

Although generally ignored by most media accounts, these reports represent just the kind of practical input from the scientific community that transcends the noise generated by protests and movie stars. Dr. Lassonde noted that policy-makers can seek advice from a daunting array of sources, most of which will be spun in just the ways Mr. Caulfield warned. The Royal Society, on the other hand, receives no government funding and so retains an independent perspective that has no need to spin its message.

One sign that governments welcome that perspective may be the fact that this year’s G20 summit will include the release of its first scientific statement, based on the topic of global health and strategies for dealing with chronic and communicable diseases. This task will be a lot less fun than a protest, but the outcome will build precisely the kind of trust and credibility sought by anyone who wants to help shape the way their country is led.

“I do believe that we have within the Royal Society of Canada the best researchers in engineering, the best researchers in arts, the best researchers in social science,” concluded Dr. Lassonde. “Why can’t we put all these people together and provide advice?”

Tim Lougheed is president of the Canadian Science Writers Association, which recently changed its name to Science Writers and Communicators of Canada.

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  1. R. Craigen / May 17, 2017 at 3:53 pm

    With regard to the title of this piece, which I think was not written by the article’s author, I’d like to expand somewhat on some of the author’s points, perhaps a bit more … uh … “pointedly”:

    I generally dislike contrived public displays at the best of times, and the MFS struck me as exactly that, so I paid little attention.

    However the few times I happened across news items pertaining to the various local manifestations of MFS it seemed that invariably there was little recognizable as “science” as we know it practiced in the field.

    The events I saw, without exceptions, were about hot-button political issues: Poverty, abortion, climate change, Donald Trump and US electoral politics, religion and education, immigration, refugees and globalism.

    The placards prominently displayed the word SCIENCE. Speakers and marchers chanted “Science!” like lunatic Bill Nye clones. But little science was discussed or highlighted.

    What I perceived was the invocation of science as a rubric for pushing political agendas.

    In few cases did it even seem that science was a particularly important factor in the issue being highlighted — I mean besides the fact that literally EVERYTHING has SOMETHING to do with science just by the nature of things.

    But in more than one case it struck me that agendas were being pushed which, if invoked, science might indeed suggest quite a different direction. In this sense some of the events were not even “science neutral” — they appeared to be somewhat at odds with science.

    I’m personally sick of science being used publicly as a political cudgel. Particularly when used by those who seem to have little knowledge or concern for the discipline of science, and for issues whose relation to science strikes me as a bit forced.

    Further, if you have learned anything from Brexit, the US election and other trends in Western society, you should know that the general public has grown more than tired of hysterical warriors marching down streets ululating slogans for a utopian New World Order. That our media covers these marches with fond approval does not change the general reaction: the public is sick of it, and these events serve to increase the level of general cynicism toward causes climbing onto that pedestal.

    But the media is largely blind to this; they are rather immune to self-inspection and insulated against the frustrations of the common man.

    The same comment applies to the University Community across the West: We form a cultural elite and live inside an intellectual bubble that presents us with a fictional version of the world, and unreal political reality that simply doesn’t correspond well with what goes on outside that bubble.

    So … “move beyond marches”? If that means turn up the intensity on the hysterical ululation to some higher notch? Count me out. And you won’t be doing yourself, or “science”s any favours in doing so.

    Further, who says it is the business of people of science to “impact policy”? That the results of science can and should impact policy there is no doubt. But that is not at all the same thing at all as going on marches, or organizing collectively to pressure governments, or getting involved and changing the system from within.

    If recent history tells us anything, it is that politicians are terrible at science … and scientists are terrible at public policy. And those trying to merge the two into a Frankenstein’s monster of “progress” are liable to make both worse and do much damage to society.

    Are we already forgetful of the politics/science chimeras of the Soviet and Red Chinese eras? What motivates intelligent people to want to go there again?

    In any case … if you are going there, you’ll have to go without me.

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