The Globe and Mail: New program allows scientists to get involved in federal policy-making

When more than 1,300 new scientists signed an open letter to the Trudeau government last month, asking it to keep its promise to make policy based on evidence, it was the latest example of a growing movement to respect science in a world that is increasingly skeptical of experts.

While the signatories of the letter were reacting to the federal government’s review of the environmental-assessment process, a new program is allowing young scientists to get directly involved in making policy.

“We are in a world with many truths … At end of the day, should we be looking at all the voices and making a decision, or should we maybe be proactive and say what is our criteria?” said Alexandra Mallett, one of the 12 Canadian Science Policy Fellows. 

Most of the participants in the fellowship are postdoctoral researchers who receive year-long postings in various departments. But Dr. Mallett already has a teaching position and is taking a leave from her post as an assistant professor at Carleton University to participate.

As the program grows – next year’s class has 30 fellows – it could provide a model for how to do “evidence-based policy-making,” a much-touted Trudeau government promise. The fellowship, however, was not conceived by the government. It began as an idea developed by a group of scientists in the last year of the Conservative government.

That was when Sally Otto, a biology professor at the University of British Columbia and MacArthur Fellow, began to talk to colleagues about how to strengthen the voices of Canada’s scientists.

“[We] were brainstorming about how to improve the relationship between science and science policy decision-making. One way that I’ve seen that work in other countries is to make a closer bridge between what scientists do and what policy makers do,” she said.

One possibility was a group such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Another was to help early-career researchers engage with the public and governments while gaining career experience.

They took the fellowship idea to Mitacs, the national non-profit that links graduate researchers and industry, because they believed Mitacs could get it off the ground quickly. It is now run as a partnership among Mitacs, the federal government and the University of Ottawa.

“A lot of the scientists I work with are concerned about biodiversity and climate change and they feel that if you just work inside the Ivory Tower, the world will change in front of our eyes without us getting involved,” Dr. Otto said. “The people entering science now … want to look back and think that their work is not just interesting, but that it made a difference,” she said.

The fellows – who are drawn primarily from science, but also arts and social sciences – don’t expect every lawmaker to fall in line. They understand that politicians will ignore the best evidence if jobs are at stake or voters are opposed to a policy.

“It’s a learning process and managing your expectations and understanding the hard reality of how policy works … Evidence is just part of the process. It does not have excessive weight,” said Pierre-Olivier Bédard, who is working at Global Affairs Canada helping to develop new ways to measure the impact of development aid.

Sometimes, the ideal way to collect evidence may be impossible to implement, he added.

“In the U.K., they have a good 10 years of using randomized controlled trials [in policy],” he said. “There are those kinds of ideas here as well … but you can’t run a randomized controlled trial in South Sudan to see if it works. You have to think about something that manages to get tangible evidence.”

Like many other fellows in the program, Dr. Bédard says he hopes the program will advance his career, whether it ends up being in government or academia.

The experience of learning how to translate policy skills to the academic world and academic skills to government is crucial, Dr. Otto said.

Some scientists do not know that they can give testimony to government committees. Others need training in communicating concisely.

“What kind of information does a policy maker need, what is the achievable action? They don’t want a 20-page paper,” she said. “It’s a flip from the standard scientific experience.”

–Simona Chiose