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The Black Hole

Science on the Hill: Getting Scientific Information into the Hands of Government

The intention behind this particular blog entry is to focus on how our elected representatives and the bureaucratic machinery that operates alongside them filter through the thousands of scientific papers and reports to make policy and political decisions. First of all, our original group tried to figure out how government gets scientific information, then asked was the science and the delivery process rigorous, and finally we proposed (or borrowed) some possible solution


Quick Hits:
Two excellent articles from my friend Jason:
1) “How to Succeed in Science” – I had actually read this a number of years ago, but Jason forwarded the follow up piece that redeems the whole story – I encourage reading both, but especially the second
2) A week later, another gem was passed on…and it’s very relevant to Beth’s latest post Postacademic Jobs
Science on the Hill: Getting Scientific Information into the Hands of Government

One of the things that strikes you most after moving to England is the level of public interest in science (and international issues, but that can be someone else’s blog). A Vancouver-based nanotechnology blogger read Beth’s blog on science outreach programs and made a very astute observation that has also bothered me about programs in Canada – most of them are focused on kids. To be fair, I see enormous value in the programs that do exist in Canada – especially Let’s Talk Science which I personally worked with for a number of years at UBC , but I can’t help nodding along in agreement when someone mentions the dearth of general science that interests and/or is presented to Canadians. When asked to identify the most important issues affecting their country, Canadians often list three items: economy, healthcare, and environment. Though often underappreciated, the advancement of science and technology is a common thread that underpins and indeed, is inextricably linked, to these three major issues. We live in a world where the economy is driven by innovation, medicine requires further advances each day to save and improve lives, and an environmental crisis is upon us as our climate changes as a direct consequence of our modern lifestyle. Here in England it’s different, totally different and there is much that Canada can learn from – I’ve tried to highlight a few interesting things that people can check out:

1. To typify the level of general interest in science, have a look at this grade 7 teacher who started a blog with the question “Why is Science Important” – there is a 30 minute video and a plentitude of responses to his question and it’s worth asking yourself – how many people do I know in Canada that would go to this kind of trouble to promote science just because…
2. A government run public services site called Science (So what? So everything?) that covers everything from careers in science to local events to information on topical issues (like why we should pee in the shower) – basically this is a one stop shop that makes science relevant to the average person (and even has small clips on careers like: What is a Pathologist?) – for those wishing to improve how the public thinks about science, visit this site
3. The government actually does a whole lot of science (and yes…I am aware that Health Canada, DFO, etc do lots of scientific research as well) – and it’s all collated under one database/website so departments can effectively share information
4. The British Science Association is a charity dedicated to advancing the public’s understanding of science – they hold events, sponsor other groups, and generally promote the state of science in society
5. Oxford University has a full Professorship Chair for the Public Understanding of Science
6. The (free!) Natural History Museum in London is the best science based museum I have ever had the pleasure of visiting – and it’s always packed because people are keen on seeing each and every exhibit. It’s geared towards children AND adults!
7. The British have what I like to call a “real” science advisory panel called the Council for Science and Technology, take a few minutes to compare it to the STIC which I’ll talk about below – think about things like “who does it report to?” and “who is on the committee?” amongst many other things…

The intention behind this particular blog entry is to focus on how our elected representatives and the bureaucratic machinery that operates alongside them filter through the thousands of scientific papers and reports to make policy and political decisions. A great read on this issue is the British CST’s report entitled “How academia and government can work together”

First of all, our original group tried to figure out how government gets scientific information, then asked was the science and the delivery process rigorous, and finally we proposed (or borrowed) some possible solutions.

When we started, the Liberals were freshly ousted from their reign in Canadian politics (1993-2006) and one of the early events in Stephen Harper’s term enraged scientists – the closing of the Office of the National Science Adviser to the PM, though after an initial “Hey, what’s up with that?” I’ve come to agree with Paul Wells’ article that emphasizes this is not a political problem of Stephen Harper’s so much as it is a consistent lack of perspective and opinion from Canada’s scientists… we kinda just sit in the lab and let politics play out as it will, accepting whatever is thrown our way and making do with it. If scientists believe there is something fundamentally wrong with the system, we should say so.

But… I digress. Suffice it to say that the mood in the cabin just outside Merritt, BC was one of contempt for the way that government chooses to get its scientific information. This contempt was useful for digging up information for certain and it arrived at four primary sources for government officials:
1) The Science and Technology Innovation Council – a council of 18 with the mandate to provide external policy advice on science and technology
2) The Council of Canadian Academies – a non-profit organization that acts as a source of independent, expert assessment of the science underlying pressing issues and matters of public interest…
3) Briefings in the House of Commons – though rarely on scientific issues, the house is often briefed by experts in pressing issues.
4) Personal relationships – not really quantifiable, but it seems that having a personal relationship with a medical doctor or a scientist can go a whole lot further to informing policy than a university professor’s latest paper.

Ok, the last one isn’t really fair…. But, my point is that the first three actually look alright from the outside as reasonable (though minimal) sources of information. The rigor in the “process of delivery” however leaves much to be desired.

First, the STIC… “external policy advice on science and technology”… hmmmm… let’s look at said board of 18…
# of people with actual training as researchers in science (i.e.: a PhD in a science based discipline): 6
# of people that either own or are members of a major industrial board of directors: 13 (4 of whom are in the first category)
# of people listed as “Dr.” that appear to only have an honorary doctorate: 1
# of former (or current) senior government officials: 3

PS: What science and technology council is going to recommend shutting down the oil sands when the chairman of the board of Encana is sitting at the table?

Who else thinks that this council might, just might, be interested in short term solutions that translate ideas into the marketplace? Not that translating, innovating, etc are bad things, but I’d be hard pressed to call this independent or arms length science advice. It is definitely policy advice… so they’ve got part of their mandate right on the money. Is it what the science community wants to see as the primary filter going through to government? I’m not so sure.

We need somebody that asks good questions in government… like… does this data actually show what you claim? I would bet that parliamentarians have seen bar graphs that show “statistical differences” that “definitively show” that climate change is not (or is) happening… how do they know who to believe? Where is the critical review?

So, what are some possible solutions? We thought about this, but frankly, we’re not experts in this. The things that we did come up with we divided into increasing “Science on the Hill” and “Scientists on the Hill”

Science on the Hill
They already have programs like bacon and eggheads and while passive learning is useful, I know I didn’t take a whole lot home today about clathrin coated pits…

We speculated that reports, panels, and an even more informed senior civil service that has a good relationship with universities and their professors would be the way forward.

The Council of Canadian Academies has a lot of the correct language and momentum, but as Jeff Sharom and Mehrdad Hariri point out in a University Affairs magazine article, scientists need to create something bolder – access to decision makers, stronger more organized advocacy, more attention and dedicated academics to “science for policy” and “policy for science”

Scientists on the Hill
The occasional visit or panel is great, but what we really need to get is a permanent presence for scientists in Ottawa around Parliament Hill. We need scientists that are senior bureaucrats, members of science based lobby groups, and even as MPs. An idea that Art Carty (former National Science Adviser) put forward was to have sabbaticals for scientists in parliament. This way, instead of taking six months in Sweden, leading researchers could act as a resource for parliament to discuss issues that are in the public eye. The researchers could gain valuable insight into the political process as well. This would also allow rapport to develop between scientists and senior civil servants.

Another great resource for this type of discussion and to catch the momentum of the movement is the site run by the folks who spearheaded the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference and wrote the UA article above.

In the end, I think the science community (and probably academics in general) need to redefine their role in society. We need to be a part of the movement that gets the Canadian public excited about discovery, innovation, and maybe even throw in international issues.

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. Maryse de la Giroday / November 25, 2009 at 00:39

    Hi and thanks for the shout out to the “Vancouver-based nanotechnology blogger” and my November 17, 2009 posting … it’s nice to know someone is reading … I quite agree with you about scientists not actively communicating on their own behalf … and, your last paragraph resonated strongly with me … I look forward to checking out the resources you list as several are new to me …