Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Chrystia Freeland have relied heavily on the science-based advice of Chief Medical Officer Theresa Tam during the coronavirus pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Politicians and scientists need strong connections during the coronavirus crisis — and beyond

Dominique Robert, Université du Québec à Rimouski (UQAR), Adam T. Ford, University of British Columbia, Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, Laurentian University, Amanda J. Moehring, Western University, Angela Kaida, Simon Fraser University, Arjun Krishnaswamy, McGill University, Catherine L. Mah, Dalhousie University, Cole Burton, University of British Columbia, Erin Bertrand, Dalhousie University, Heather Sparling, Cape Breton University, Jackie Dawson, L’Université d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa, Jiaying Zhao, University of British Columbia, Kin Chan, L’Université d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa, Mary A De Vera, University of British Columbia, Matt McTaggart, Royal Military College of Canada, Meghan Azad, University of Manitoba, Sheldon Williamson, Ontario Tech University, Stephanie Waterman, University of British Columbia, Trushar R. Patel, University of Lethbridge, Valorie A. Crooks, Simon Fraser University

The reaction of governments to the coronavirus pandemic perfectly illustrates the importance of maintaining strong links between the scientific and political communities.

Federal and provincial political leaders in Canada are working closely with scientific experts to slow the spread of the infection, combat misinformation and respond quickly and effectively.

Sadly, we have also seen in some cases the harm that weakening the role of science in policy-making can cause.

Whether in times of crisis or not, the constructive integration of scientific evidence into political decision-making strengthens policy initiatives, improves the quality of debate and leads to robust, cost-effective and successful outcomes for society.

Despite the importance of science in society — and we mean science in its broadest sense, including the natural, health and social sciences — there is a considerable gap between the scientific and political spheres.

This gap is widening in the current “post-truth” era, where the role of science has become weakened in many public institutions, and is often discredited to the benefit of vested and financed interests. It is also increasingly difficult for policy-makers to navigate the growing quantity and variety of scholarly research and evaluate its validity.

In order to make full use of our knowledge resources, we need researchers from all disciplines to engage with the policy-making process. However, researchers are underrepresented in politics and governance worldwide. Canada is no exception. A recent analysis has revealed that scientific disciplines are strongly underrepresented within the current Parliament.

Why aren’t more scientists in politics?

Scientists have often been portrayed as looking down from an ivory tower and many researchers still perceive science as outside of or “above” politics and everyday life. However, a growing number of scientists worldwide recognize the need for public engagement and involvement in the policy-making process to ensure that society can take the maximum benefit from the knowledge that science generates.

Why then do so few scientists run for office or engage with policy-makers?

One key problem is that engaging in government policy is not well rewarded by academic institutions. Given heavy demands on researchers’ time, it can be difficult to justify activities that are not typically recognized as benchmarks of academic achievement by research institutions or funding agencies.

In addition to a lack of professional motivation, few scientists know how to communicate effectively with politicians, provide valuable and timely input to policy questions or connect with government representatives. While Canadian policy-makers rely on parliamentary committees to review and use scientific evidence, academics are largely unaware of the committee process or how to get involved.

Science meets Parliament

We were privileged to be among the scientists who participated in Canada’s inaugural Science Meets Parliament in November 2018.

This non-partisan event brought together academics and policy-makers to promote a mutual understanding of their respective roles and to build new relationships between the two communities. Based on a model founded in Australia more than 20 years ago, the Canadian Science Policy Centre and Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, partnered to co-ordinate this two-day program on Parliament Hill.

Science Meets Parliament included workshops where scientists discussed methods for effective communication, the structure of government and legislative processes, national science-related policy issues and methods to assist MPs and senators to advance evidence-informed policy.

Participants in the first meeting of the ‘Science Meets Parliament’ program with Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor. (Canadian Science Policy Centre)

Building on our experience from Science Meets Parliament, we are proposing six recommendations for improving science-policy relationships in Canada.

1. Integrate public policy communication into academic training

Effective communications with policy-makers is a key skill that researchers must develop if they are to facilitate the incorporation of science into policy. Yet this element is missing from most graduate programs and faculty training.

We contend that including policy communication skill development into professional training will provide the current and future generations of scientists with the tools necessary to engage with policy-makers.

2. Develop incentives for policy engagement

Researchers have identified the lack of professional incentives for policy engagement as an important reason why a gap exists between science and policy.

We recommend that universities and granting agencies view policy input, such as briefing notes or committee testimony, as valid research outputs and service for the purposes of promotion and funding applications. Additionally, to streamline faculty engagement with the policy process, public outreach offices could monitor parliamentary committee agendas and alert researchers to opportunities to contribute their expertise.

3. Establish and support forums for public engagement training

We applaud efforts to establish Canadian Science Policy Fellowships and funding opportunities for scientists to participate in training activities focusing on public communication skills.

Science Meets Parliament has demonstrated the potential to grow into a major capacity builder in this area. Starting with a second edition planned for the fall, we recommend funding this program on an annual basis to continue introducing scientists from diverse disciplines and backgrounds to the policy-making process.

4. Create a research chair at the Chief Science Advisor’s office

We propose the creation of visiting research chairs within the office of the Chief Science Advisor. This would allow scientists to learn and develop new strategies for integrating science into politics. This position could take the form of internships lasting from four months to one year for researchers who participated in the Science Meets Parliament program.

5. Establish science literacy opportunities for Parliamentarians

Parliamentarians should be offered more opportunities to enhance their science literacy through campus and community visits, targeted training and workshops, or pairing with scientists. These would enhance understanding of the scientific landscape in Canada, including how to access credible information from the scientific community. Access to relevant scientific information could also be facilitated by collaboration between academic researchers and analysts from the Library of Parliament, which publishes a research document called HillNotes.

6. Extend Science Meets Parliament to other levels of government

In Canada, legislative powers are distributed among the federal and provincial/territorial governments, and in co-ordination with First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation communities. While the municipalities report directly to the provinces, they often have the most direct relationships to local residents. Strong links between scientists, Indigenous leaders and members of municipal councils and provincial legislative assemblies are therefore equally important as links with federal legislators.

Both scientists and policy-makers considered the inaugural Science Meets Parliament event highly successful. We hope the lessons learned can be applied to strengthen the program in order to foster a robust culture of science in Canadian public life.

Comment on this article

Dominique Robert receives funding from the Canada Research Chairs Program and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Adam T. Ford receives funding from the Canada Research Chairs Program, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde receives funding from the Canada Research Chair program and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

Amanda J. Moehring receives funding from the Canada Research Chairs Program, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Angela Kaida receives funding from the Canada Research Chairs program, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Grand Challenges Canada, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Arjun Krishnaswamy receives funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Canada Research Chairs Program.

Catherine L. Mah holds funding from the Canada Research Chairs program, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

Cole Burton receives funding from funding from the Canada Research Chairs Program, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Canada Foundation for Innovation, Mitacs, and British Columbia Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

Erin Bertrand holds funding from the Canada Research Chair Program, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the New Frontiers in Research Fund, the Ocean Frontier Institute and the Simons Foundation

Heather Sparling holds funding from the Canada Research Chairs program and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She has received funding from several Nova Scotia government grants at various points.

Jackie Dawson receives funding from SSHRC, ArcticNet, MEOPAR.

Kin Chan receives funding from the Canada Research Chairs program, SSHRC, NSERC, and the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade.

Mary A De Vera receives funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, The Arthritis Society, the Canadian Initiative for Outcomes in Rheumatology Care, and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.

Meghan Azad receives funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Research Manitoba, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Manitoba Children’s Hospital Foundation, Prolacta Biosciences, Mitacs, and the Garfield G. Weston Foundation.

Sheldon Williamson receives funding from the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program, the Natural Sciences and engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada, the Ontario Centers of Excellence (OCE), MITACS, Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), NSERC Discovery Grants Program , and the NSERC Alliance program.

Stephanie Waterman receives funding from the Canada Research Chair Program, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the New Frontiers in Research Fund, MITACS, Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR), the Canadian Foundation for Innovation ( CFI) and the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund (BCKDF).

Trushar R. Patel receives funding from the Canada Research Chair program, Alberta Innovates, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery program and Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Valorie A. Crooks receives funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, and the Canada Research Chairs Secretariat.

Jiaying Zhao and Matt McTaggart do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of Manitoba, Dalhousie University, University of British Columbia, and Laurentian University provide funding as founding partners of The Conversation CA.

Université du Québec à Rimouski (UQAR) and Universitié Laurentienne provide funding as founding partners of The Conversation CA-FR.

Simon Fraser University , McGill University, University of Ottawa, and Western University provide funding as members of The Conversation CA.

McGill University, University of British Columbia, Dalhousie University, University of Manitoba, University of Ottawa, Western University, and Simon Fraser University provide funding as members of The Conversation CA-FR.