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Suffering a crisis of faith in Canadian science

To find value in scientific research, we need to understand and respect the social environment in which it occurs.


Scientific research improves our understanding of the world, helps us to make better decisions, enhances economic prospects and contributes to Canada’s social and cultural fabric. But the only part of this formula that scientists can directly control is the first. The creation of knowledge and understanding, through the use of the scientific method, will lead to those values in the second part of the formula only if the social context and processes are sufficiently understood.

This past May, former University of Toronto president David Naylor called for the research community to be “in permanent campaign mode.” Dr. Naylor, who chaired the advisory panel that conducted Canada’s Fundamental Science Review in 2017, suggested the need for “extraordinary resolve, resilience and persistence on the part of the research community, inside and outside of government,” to make the case for increased support for Canada’s “flagging investment in research and development.”

While Dr. Naylor has rightly identified a concerning gap in Canada’s research landscape, we need more than a rallying cry for increased spending. The problem is that it suggests a too-simple equation of more research equals more value. While there is of course a relationship between investment in science and the value derived from it, it is not as straightforward as investing more to have greater benefit.

We agree with Julia Boughnet, an associate professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s school of medicine, who said that “non-linear, unpredictable, curiosity-driven research is deeply valuable.” We are not wading into the debate between fundamental research versus applied research. Instead, we are addressing how information becomes valuable (beyond its intrinsic value) and is then applied in our economy or society, regardless of whether the research origins were fundamental or applied.

There is a common optimistic opinion that providing and delivering the right information in the right way will somehow reveal truth to people and galvanize action in favour of economic and social benefits. But this requires an excess of faith. As philosopher Alan Watts wrote in The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (originally published in 1951), faith is “an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science.”

Faith defined in that way is really, really hard to have. Even if we approach truth with an unreserved opening of the mind, we are limited in our ability to absorb it and our capability to act on it. We all have preconceptions. We cannot plunge into the unknown, at least not most of us, and not all of the time. This is why we always aspire to a position of faith, but rarely reach it.

Why do we as individuals and societies have limited capacity to act on information? Sometimes it is because the information isn’t there, and therefore research leading to a better understanding of things is a logical response. But often – perhaps even much more often – this capacity is limited because, as people, we are busy, we are flawed or inconsistent, we have competing interests and priorities, we’ve made investments (of money, time, emotion) into certain positions and views, we are uncertain, we perceive risk differently. All serve to limit absorptive capacity.

Understanding the context in which new information will be received – for uptake or implementation by people, communities, industries, etc. – is essential. It is also under-researched and certainly underappreciated.

Beginning in 1962, E.M. Rogers worked through the theory of diffusion of innovation, an idea that he continued to develop through five editions of his book. An example he used to illustrate the dynamic between research results and uptake or application was that of curing scurvy. After identifying the link between citrus and scurvy, it took 146 years for the first randomized test; despite conclusive results, it took another 48 years to rid the British navy of the disease, and a further 70 years for merchant mariners to adopt the cure. All told, 264 years.

We may comfort ourselves by thinking that we are far more sophisticated than the mariners of 1601 to 1870, but given the record of astonishing innovation that occurred in that same time period, we would not count on a more modern predisposition to evidence-based decision-making.

We do not question the need for research or its essential role in improving society. But gross measures of national investment in R&D or international comparisons of Canada’s investment to that of others in the OECD will not fully address the point. Adding more information does not necessarily lead to better implementation.

It is essential to grasp the role of an end user or audience as a human being with motivations, biases and activity that influence how he or she interact with new knowledge. This is in stark contrast to a view of the public as empty receptacles ready to receive information. It’s also in contrast to much of what’s called knowledge mobilization, which does consider the needs of the end user, but still focuses on getting information moved into a secondary audience to then use, without that user being an active participant beyond a sort of client role.

Both of these two systems rely on a scientist-first approach, which centres the scientist as the generator of knowledge who must disseminate, translate or move this information to a receiver. This might work for some concepts. But surely everyone has an interest (whether positive or negative) in science, healthcare and their environs, which influences their perception of, and willingness to engage with, anything coming out of the scientific community.

We’re overlooking these natural considerations if we only try to educate and communicate at audience groups, including industry, government and communities. We’re also overlooking these considerations if we argue that we simply need more science, or that we are falling behind our international colleagues and competitors.

Fortunately, we now have a couple of decades of scholarship in the area of dissemination and implementation of research. But it hasn’t itself yet diffused as a concept into the mainstream. What happens if we were to flip the discussion on its head and spend some time improving scientists’ understanding of why policy makers don’t make use of their research, or don’t provide funding to the level they desire?

This is very different from mounting a campaign for more funding, or discussing the divide between fundamental and applied research. It means doing something more difficult: understanding the considerations and pressures that governments face beyond the purely scientific. It means respecting the social environment in which research is considered and diffused, and valuing it just as much as the new knowledge that results from the research endeavour.

Governments are not stupid. They are reflecting the competing interests and priorities, the existing investments, the varying risk tolerance, the different value judgements of all of us whom they represent. We would all do well to embrace what Orwell called “a rational, sceptical, experimental habit of mind.” Yes, we should pursue research to increase our understanding of the natural and human world. These pursuits can and should be both curiosity-driven fundamental research and mission-driven applied research. But we should also support increasing the understanding of how and why knowledge is disseminated and implemented. In other words: let us also apply a rational, sceptical and experimental habit of mind to the truths we hold dear about the unquestioned value of science.

Stefan Leslie is the executive director of the Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR), a Network of Centres of Excellence hosted at Dalhousie University. He is also the founder of the Fathom Fund, a new approach to funding research in Canada using innovative, non-traditional mechanisms such as crowdfunding and challenge prizes. Heather Desserud is the manager of communications and strategy at MEOPAR and the operations director of the Fathom Fund.

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  1. Brian Cox / August 2, 2019 at 09:54

    Interesting article, in particular that the translation of scientific concepts in to society are a process of the society and really beyond the control of the individual researcher. I do then take a difference with the scurvy example. It was not just the knowledge of the cure to scurvy that was at play. There were likely economic pressures, was it most cost-effective to have sailors die and recruit new ones than pay for treatments? What labor laws existed that enable shipping companies to make value judgments on life? These society concerns are beyond the control of the researcher. Scientists do not keep those discoveries secret, why hold us to task to be knowledge translators? This is the responsibility of government and industry.

  2. Jill Johnstone / August 16, 2019 at 16:34

    I appreciate this perspective encouraging all of us (scientists and policy makers included) to more carefully consider how knowledge gets translated into action. As a researcher who has worked on the ecological impacts of climate change for over 25 years, I have become increasingly convinced that the greater challenge of climate change facing society is not making the science better, but finding means to shift our culturally normative decisions to favour low emissions choices. It seems to me that by just focusing on doing science the way we have always done it, scientists are missing the mark in helping science to really serve the better interests of society as a whole. I often struggle to articulate these ideas, which are rarely welcomed by my science colleagues, and appreciate this article for cogently describing some of these issues.

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