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Evidence for Democracy remarks at the Standing Committee on Science and Research

Below is a copy of the transcript of our remarks at the Standing Committee on Science and Research’s eighth meeting, as part of an ongoing study on successes, challenges and opportunities for science in Canada.
Standing Committee on Science and Research

Thank you Madame Chair and Members of this new Standing Committee for the opportunity to be here. My name is Rachael Maxwell, and I am the Executive Director at Evidence for Democracy. I am joined today by my colleague, Farah Qaiser, who is the Director of Research and Policy.

Evidence for Democracy is a national, non-partisan, non-profit that works to close the gap between decision-makers, like you, and the best available science and evidence.

We achieve this through original research, skills training, and issues-based campaigns. And we do this because we believe that we all benefit when governments make decisions informed by the best available science and evidence.

Our origin story reminds us that Canadians care about the importance of well-founded evidence in public policy.

In 2012, thousands of Canadian scientists and their supporters concerned about the diminishing role of science in government, organised the nation-wide Death of Evidence rallies. Their message was clear: we need evidence-informed policy for a strong democracy. With this momentum, the organisers of the event went on to form Evidence for Democracy.

In the decade since, much has changed.

Canada brought back a Chief Science Advisor in 2017, whose office has championed a network of departmental science advisors and the roll-out of science integrity policies.

And since 2015, mandate letters have all stated a commitment to the “use of science and evidence-based decision-making.”
These are commendable steps, but there is more to be done.

We support the calls already brought forward to you to make bold investments in science today. Canada must keep up and think bigger.
But investing in science is simply a good first step.

Last summer, British professor Ruth Morgan remarked that “the role of science has traditionally been reserved for enabling developments. Think about getting humans to the Moon, how we’ve transformed medicine […] or simply how we’ve come to understand the workings of our planet.”

These are all critical developments to improving the quality of life for Canadians, and should continue to be pursued with vigour and ambition.
But Morgan also noted that: “Science will need to become more than this if we are to make the breakthroughs in the global issues we currently face.”

And so, the opportunity for science I want to emphasise with you today is this:

While the returns of our investments in science and research matter greatly to our innovation and economic objectives, we need to ensure that they matter equally to our democracy, and inform the decisions being made within it.

Because public policy needs science more than ever.

Virtually every policy issue that you will face as a Parliamentarian can benefit from science, especially as we consider the ever-growing challenges related to climate change, food security, widening social inequality, and so much more. So, we must work together to put evidence at the heart of public policy.

First, we need to make sure that a voice for science is secure in the federal government.

Because inevitably, every government will need access to science advice in the decades ahead.

We encourage this Committee to consider efforts to protect and formalise the Office of the Chief Science Advisor.

Additional advisory resources, such as a Parliamentary Science Officer or expanding the science and research capacity in the Library of Parliament, should also be considered.

And, we need to revisit investments in federal government science to make sure government scientists are able to deliver on their work.

Beyond the federal level, science advice across this country requires a linked-up, pan-Canadian approach. Historical examples of science coordination of this kind exist and should be reconsidered in the current context.

Secondly, COVID-19 has shone a light on the three-way relationship between science, society and policy.

So, we need more deliberate opportunities for scientists and policy-makers to come together to better serve society.

Getting the right evidence starts with asking the right questions. Schemes that allow policy-makers and scientists to co-create research questions could return more relevant and timely evidence.

Better serving society also demands that we reimagine the skills that scientists and policy-makers need, and help them acquire these competencies.

We’ve just wrapped up our Science to Policy Accelerator training program. Over 250 researchers expressed interest, making it clear that scientists want to participate in public policy.

For researchers, some important skills to contribute to policy include:

  • Communicating evidence concisely and demonstrating its relevance to policy problems; and,
  • Engaging with stakeholders to build trust and credibility around scientific evidence.
    For their part, policy-makers may benefit from increasing their understanding of the nature and limitations of scientific evidence, as well as risk and statistical literacy.

In closing, I wish to highlight that while science has never been more advanced and our ability to gain value from vast amounts of data are unrivaled, we are buckling under the pressure of threats like climate change, misinformation and unchecked inequality.

Future proofing our country and economy requires a bolder approach to using science to absorb the shocks of the coming decades.

This is true in the way that we invest in science and research today, and equally true in the way that the impact of publicly funded research finds its way back to you and decision-makers across the country.

Thank you for your time.

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