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The Black Hole

Devils of Details: Getting Scientists to Understand How Policy Making Works


Yesterday I attended a panel discussion at Cambridge run by a group called the Centre for Science and Policy. It is part of a series of events designed to engage and unite those at the University who have an interest in the role of scientific information in government policy. This particular session was entitled Working on the inside and highlighted the roles of Cambridge academics that have pursued these sorts of roles in Government.

The panelists all had some role in bringing a scientific perspective to the parliamentarians at Whitehall. These roles, however, were distinct and spanned multiple career stages, areas of focus, and included different sets of responsibilities. The panelists were:

Dr Rob Doubleday (ESRC Policy Placement Fellow, Government Office for Science)
Professor Michael Kelly (former Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), Dept. for Communities and Local Government)
Professor Frank Kelly (former CSA, Dept. for Transport)
Dr Eoin O’Sullivan (Senior Policy Fellow, Institute for Manufacturing)

It lasted just 2.5 hours and involved just 50 people – many of whom also had (or have) a major role in science and policy in the UK. Needless to say, I felt critically undereducated, overwhelmed, and had virtually nothing to contribute. But, there was much to learn from this meeting. Sadly, it was run under the Chatham House Rule which means I cannot thoroughly discuss the ideas presented or the information given, but a few things that I think Canadian universities, granting agencies, and the civil service would be foolish not to consider are:

Test Driving: Programs to engage, inform and train early career researchers
The ESRC Government Placement Fellowship scheme
sounded like the realization of an idea I first heard pitched by then National Science Adviser Art Carty – sabbaticals in Parliament – which I’ve written about before in another entry on getting science to Government. It seems that the UK has created a 3-12 month program for researchers to take leave from their university and become a pseudo-member of the civil service.
This is a real win-win as the researcher gets insight into how things work in “the real world” while also offering a fresh perspective to the civil service in terms of thinking as well as the actual information delivered. Importantly, bureaucrats involved in the program appeared to have no sense of performing an advanced form of babysitting. Furthermore, it helps researchers learn a little bit about how to manage people – principal investigators are often on their own when it comes to managing human resources, this type of experience can only help.

It’s already built, I don’t care anymore: Learning how the other team thinks
Scientists are a focused bunch – we specialize (to our detriment sometimes) and are often left very unsatisfied with loose ends. Politicians make big decisions daily and a scientist’s life’s work can be discussed and adopted (or dismissed) over an afternoon tea break. The loose ends are often plentiful, but there’s no time to tie them and other critically important items need to be discussed and decided. This distinction seems so straightforward, but can be the root of so many problems. If a scientist is going to step into the policy realm, they had best take a crash course in how to get their ideas into simple practical messages with real consequences on one side or the other.

Grade A for America: Learning from Washington and the AAAS
A lot of the funding and organizations that support improving the presence and role of science in Government comes from the National Science Foundation and the AAAS – organizations for which Canada has no equivalent. The programs and progress achieved by these groups are vast and something Canada should aspire toward.

This does, however, beg the question of who could support or design such a program in Canada? Perhaps this is a role that granting agencies, centres of excellence, the CFI, universities or the Royal Society could fill by inventing (read: copying from elsewhere) a program that would encourage scientists to undertake such roles.

University centric approaches: Knowing who’s who and what they are doing
Oftentimes, the way an individual gets involved with science and policy is the result of a friend or colleague who either recommends or encourages them to partake. This leads to a general lack of awareness from the rest of the institution about these people and their positions. One of the action items that was agreed upon informally at the panel discussion was to establish a mechanism for members of Cambridge University to know who was involved at Whitehall and what they were doing, so these similarly engaged academics could learn from each other and pool resources. The CSaP events were agreed to be a great start to this and the overall feeling was that the university could contribute far more to the country’s policy than it was currently doing. Perhaps Canadian universities could run with this idea as well and ensure that they have a central resource for facilitating these types of interactions between their researchers and the government.

Overall, it appears that Canada suffers similarly to the UK and the gap between academic scientists and civil servants is not insignificant – probably more pronounced in Canada. The solution is not necessarily an increased science focused bureaucracy, but instead to simply have more cross-fertilization between universities and governments – put them in the same room at the same time and let them learn from each other. This can be achieved by fellowship/sabbatical type arrangements, by encouraging science trainees (and university professors) to pursue careers in the civil service, and by breaking down the barriers between styles of thinking.

There is a lot of lip service paid to the idea that Canada needs a knowledge-based, innovation economy. While an enormous portion of the personnel training takes place at universities, trainees appear to be given less and less freedom or encouragement to “innovate” and are producing more and more cookie cutter PhDs. The innovation culture line of thinking is not an inherently bad one (academics would agree that innovation is important and the bedrock of research), but the politicization of that message result in programs like business related SSHRCs and extreme skewing toward translational medicine which are not necessarily the academic’s version of innovation.
Getting more academics in the same room with policymakers will clear the muddy waters – which organization will step up to the challenge in Canada?

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Lindsay / June 16, 2010 at 07:25

    Thanks for the posting. I am sorry I missed this panel discussion. I would like to add that the ‘scientists’ that was spoken of at this panel includes social scientists and not just economists. This is an often overlooked realm of expertise in the policy process and is not evident in the generally accepted term ‘science-based policy’. Furthermore, the interface between the university and policy making is one of many interfaces with the so-called scientist. There are other knowledge generating organizations out there that also need to be engaged by (or, perhaps more realistically, engage with) policy makers. I know you are very much focused on the natural scientists and, specifically, laboratory-based medical sciences, so this is not something you will typically speak to, but I thought your readers should be aware of this.

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