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In my opinion

We need a forum on science policy

National conference in October is a first step to making this a reality

BY MEHRDAD HARIRI + JEFF SHAROM | SEP 08 2009

Scientific research and innovation are the foundation that underpins wealth creation in the 21st century. Canadians’ health, economic prosperity, global competitiveness, and high standard of living are intimately linked to the continued strength and productivity of the nation’s scientific research engine. In turn, the success of this research engine depends on the formulation of sound policies governing science and innovation – a process that requires the exchange of ideas among all stakeholders, including university researchers, industry and government.

Sadly, science policy has never been accorded widespread attention in Canada. Despite substantial government investments in science and technology, our country’s science policy infrastructure lags behind that of many other nations. Canada needs better channels to allow proactive input from academic scientists into government decision-making, more research on science policy and a dedicated forum to discuss science policy issues of national importance.

Science policy lies at the interface of the scientific enterprise and public administration. It encompasses two related and complementary spheres. The first is “policy for science” –  strategies for managing and enhancing the conduct of scientific research. The second is “science for policy” – mechanisms by which scientific knowledge informs government decision-making.

In Canada, “science for policy” has limited input from academic scientists. The federal government has two main channels to receive external science advice: the Science, Technology and Innovation Council and the Council of Canadian Academies. Although these bodies’ expert knowledge is unquestionable, many of the issues they examine are referred to them by government. No formal channel exists for the academic science community to proactively communicate their concerns to policymakers, yet this capability is crucial for dealing with rapidly emerging challenges and opportunities in science and technology.

Similarly, non-governmental input into Canadian “policy for science” needs to improve. At the moment, various scientific and professional associations try to influence government funding and management of research in an uncoordinated way.

Instead, the scientific community’s voice would be stronger if it were channelled through coordinated efforts to represent Canadian science and maintain regular access to government decision-makers. Moreover, advocacy efforts might be better received by legislators if these were framed by scientists who had comprehensive knowledge of how science policy is formulated.

It is unfortunate that Canada has few academic units devoted exclusively to science-policy research. This relative dearth of training opportunities erodes Canada’s ability to produce the next generation of policymakers who understand scientific issues as well as the next generation of scientists who understand how
to integrate their research into a broader societal context.

Science policy, though, has started to get attention. Partly in response to the Obama administration’s unprecedented investments in scientific research in the U.S., Canadians in industry, academia and government have recently taken part in heated debates in the media about science funding. Such discussions are long overdue in our habitually quiet Canadian scientific community. But these efforts have rarely expanded beyond writing letters to politicians or newspaper editors.

Now, there is growing recognition that the complexity of science policy requires a dynamic and interconnected community of sophisticated policy organizations to address the needs of the science enterprise in the 21st century. Canada needs a forum to address science policy issues of national importance, and this forum needs to be comprehensive, national, multi-sectoral and multidisciplinary.

Meeting this urgent need is what prompted a grassroots group of academic scientists, industry leaders and policymakers to come together more than a year ago to organize the 2009 Canadian Science Policy Conference (sciencepolicy.ca). More than 60 diverse stakeholders will give presentations across five themes, covering the main issues of science policy in Canada. This audacious conference, to be held Oct. 28-30 in Toronto, aims to engage members of our scientific community from academia, industry, government and non-profit sectors in a vigorous discussion of the most important science policy issues facing our country and to create lasting linkages between scientists and policymakers.

The 2009 Canadian Science Policy Conference’s slogan is “Better policies, better science.” If nothing else, the conference will raise awareness about the importance of a national conversation on science policy that will benefit all Canadians.

Dr. Hariri is a postdoctoral fellow at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health and chair of the organizing committee for the Canadian Science Policy Conference. Mr. Sharom is a University of Toronto doctoral student and member of the organizing committee. The authors co-founded the science policy blog, “Science Canada.”

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  1. Carole Nap / February 12, 2010 at 11:41

    How can I help with this conference?

  2. Trevor Lynn / October 26, 2011 at 16:27

    I think your piece makes a number of good points. There are, however, many informal mechanisms that exist or that are being reinforced for science policy. The science policy conference is one of the most compelling examples. In three short years, it has gained an excellent reputation and is a place where meaningful discussion occurs. The misnomer, however, is to only refer to it as science policy. Increasingly, our society demands a people centered model of innovation that requires the contributions of the social sciences and humanities along with the sciences including health. Issues such as the economy, changes to the judicial system, foreign policy and trade rely on knowledge derives from SSH disciplines so I would think it more accurate to talk about research policy not just science policy. (NB: Views are my own, not necessarily those of my employer).