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In my opinion

Bridging the gap between science and policy

It’s critical that students be taught how to share research findings with policymakers.

BY ADEKUNBI ADETONA, ASHLEY DAVIDSON, S. ERYN MCFARLANE, LUCKSINI RAVEENDRAN, MATTHEW ROBBINS, KARTHIKA SRISKANTHARAJAH, CAITLIN FOWLER & FARAH QAISER | AUG 10 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the relationship between science, society and policy. If we expect our governments to continue to rely on science to shape policy, then we must equip researchers with the right tools to effectively participate and contribute to policymaking, starting with access to skills-based training, and opportunities to put those skills into practice.

This spring, we were among 25 early-career researchers from across the country who took part in the Science to Policy Accelerator (S2PA) – a new training program offered by the non-profit organization Evidence for Democracy – to equip researchers with the necessary knowledge and skills to move science to policy. We reflected on our experiences together, and below, share what we think the future of training can look like:

‘Better late than never’ isn’t ideal

Early exposure to policy issues and opportunities is critical to increasing the participation of the next generation of researchers in developing evidence-informed policy. But most scientists are seldom encouraged to engage with the policy implications of their research. It often isn’t until graduate school, or later, that we learn or begin to think about the relationship between science and policy. Often, we only stumble upon policy-relevant training opportunities if we have a colleague or mentor who is already engaged in this type of work. This needs to change.

There are several barriers to reckon with

In recent years, several opportunities have emerged to help scientists explore the world of policy, from specialized programs to targeted recruitment. Unfortunately, these opportunities have several limitations. A major barrier is that applicants typically need substantial policy experience to even qualify, making it challenging to transition from a purely scientific background. There are limited opportunities to explore science policy outside of Ontario and Quebec, and when participating, costs can be substantial. Many training programs are one-off opportunities or lack hands-on activities, meaning scientists are not adequately prepared to go beyond training to effectively engage in policymaking.

Let’s go one step further than a single workshop

The exposure to the world of policy can – and should – start early. Just as a single chemistry course does not make a person an experienced chemist, a single policy workshop also does not result in a scientist being fully prepared to navigate public policy.

In high school, we can expand traditional civics, science, and careers courses to include information on opportunities and careers in the policy ecosystem. At the undergraduate level and beyond, instructors can incorporate relevant policy issues into their teaching. Students should be taught how to communicate science to a wider variety of audiences. Critically, students must be trained on how to share findings with policymakers, just as they are taught to write publications for specialists. Creative approaches, such as simulations or shadowing, are also opportunities to gain hands-on training.

How can we expand access to policy training for scientists?

First, organizations offering training must consider financial and geographical barriers to ensure equitable participation. They could opt to cover costs associated with participation or travel (if the funding exists), offer virtual opportunities, or embrace a hybrid system to facilitate pan-Canadian participation.

Second, it is also important for organizers to widely advertise training opportunities to ensure the representation of equity-seeking participants, including Indigenous peoples, racialized populations, 2SLGBTQ+ individuals, disabled individuals, and international students. With consent, organizations should collect and review applicants’ socio-demographic data to plan for future outreach for underserved groups. Organizers can go one step further by embedding equity principles into the program, such as by allocating a specific number of spots to equity-seeking scientists, offering scholarships, or providing flexibility for the delivery and availability of training materials.

What do we need to make this vision a reality?

An increased focus on such training is only possible in a society that appreciates the importance of bridging the gap between science and policy. At the most basic level, it is crucial that supervisors appreciate the value of policy training, as their approval is usually necessary when seeking time away from the lab. On a broader level, there must be continued support (especially funding) from key stakeholders, including different levels of government, academic institutions, and other organizations committed to using science to inform policy. For instance, the inaugural S2PA program was offered at no cost to participants, thanks to a pilot NSERC grant.

By continuing to support existing and new training programs, with an eye toward sustainability and accessibility, stakeholders, like the federal government, will ensure that Canada not only supports cutting-edge research, but also translates that research into public policy that benefits society.

Adekunbi Adetona recently joined Natural Resources Canada as part of the policy analyst recruitment and development program. Ashley Davidson is an environmental geochemist specializing in trace analysis and science education. S. Eryn McFarlane is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wyoming. Lucksini Raveendran is a policy professional at the Ontario Ministry of Health. Matthew Robbins is a sessional instructor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo. Karthika Sriskantharajah is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Guelph. Caitlin Fowler is a research associate with Evidence for Democracy. Farah Qaiser is the director of research and policy at Evidence for Democracy.

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