On Thursday 27 May 2021, Motion M-38 was adopted unanimously to create a new Standing Committee on Science and Research in the next Parliament. During the two hours of debate for M-38, there were some cautionary remarks provided from several MPs, including using the committee as “pretext for interfering in scientific work,” or “creating a silo where research and science are isolated from the rest of society.”
Parliament and Science: Towards a More Effective Dialogue
These comments are worth noting as we've seen versions of such committees before. Past attempts to create such bodies and make them effective did not end well.
Canada has often experimented with structuring a more effective dialogue between scientists and Parliamentarians. This began in 1945 with the Canadian Association of Scientific Workers’ efforts to create a Parliamentary Scientific Committee in the House of Commons to address the post-war research issues; to the Senate Special Committee on Science Policy for Canada in the 1970s arguing for such a committee; to the House Committee on Research, Science and Technology of the mid 80s.
But these efforts fell out of favour, in part as a result of a science lobby that was often tone deaf to the heavy politics that can envelope the sciences, its funding, its practitioners and its institutions. Too often, the representatives for the research ecosystem have mistakenly seen their advocacy as unidirectional. It is not. And to be clear, demand was usually absent from elected representatives for such a body.
Science operates increasingly in the public sphere, and its institutions are not immune to debates and challenges from the broader environment. After all, knowledge is a public, social good. These days, much has been said about how science has been key to our current recovery, all the while being prodded and publicized by pundits in this political pandemic period. And science has, in large part, delivered.
With the successes have come new expectations from society, along with the polity. Canada's Parliament, and legislative committees in other jurisdictions, may start to demand a more robust role from the knowledge enterprise in responding to these expectations; hence, a new committee on science at the federal level could be an important asset in engaging the citizenry on major issues of the day, both immediate and on the horizon. It will need the necessary resources of course, along with clear access to the existing science advisory apparatus within government.
If this turns out to be the case, Canada’s science communities will not only have an enhanced responsibility to ensure trust is maintained, but they will also need to better grasp the workings of public policy. In this next normal, it will no longer be simply good enough to hone science communication skills to better explain research to elected politicians, local councillors or media.
Understanding how Parliament and its governing apparatus works (including its committees, personalities, politics and briefings) will become more critical. Learning the potential for, and limits of, sound science advice will also be helpful assets. And simply put, asking for more funding will no longer cut it. Lobbying may be helpful, but establishing trust in the long-term is far more important. Contextualizing the diverse impacts of science will matter. This will in particular be a task for the next generation of researchers. Fortunately, there is a growing list of groups doing this well.
In previous interviews, MPs consistently point to the same challenges at the interface of science and technology: finding and filtering relevant, timely evidence for their work. They also often comment that scientists should educate themselves on the nature of the political system, including its constraints and limitations.
The political class — which has been wading through massive amounts of information and evidence these days, as well as misinformation — will equally need to better appreciate the social networks behind research and knowledge production activities. Similarly, this group will also need to acknowledge that the science enterprise itself is changing under the forces of open interdisciplinary science, greater transparency, and a growing focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion. For this, research internships, short-term secondments, MP-scientist pairing schemes, Science Meets Parliament models, and the like can be helpful programs, as well as rapid response briefings on emerging issues.
There is no question that science influences policy. Public policy needs science and sound evidence more than ever. Understanding the growing complexity within these two respective cultures will require considerable and sustained efforts.
A more thoughtful dialogue has been engaged between the research community and elected officials as of late. Let’s build on it. As a former political leader once reminded us: “[In] the 21st century, for better or worse, every day is ‘science day’ and the more deeply this registers on the consciousness of our politicians, media, and citizenry, the better.”
Paul Dufour is Senior Fellow with the Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP) at the University of Ottawa, and a Board member of the Science and Policy Exchange. Evidence for Democracy thanks Mr. Dufour for his guest submission and thoughtful remarks.