E4D delivered its first-ever Science to Policy Accelerator (S2PA) over four afternoons in February and March 2022. Our new training program brought together a cohort of 25 early-career researchers to learn about public policy in Canada, and explore different forms of policy engagement. The pilot cohort consisted of participants with diverse expertise and perspectives, representing various sectors, such as industry, non-profit, academia, and government; disciplines, such as conservation, epidemiology, and quantum mechanics; and regions all across Canada.
Here, I’ll share some of the program’s key takeaways about public policy, and how scientists and researchers can contribute to the science policy ecosystem in Canada.
Science policy includes “policy for science” and “science for policy.”
“Policy for science” refers to developing policy for administering science systems, including STEM education and training. “Science for policy” involves the use of scientific evidence to inform different areas of public policy, such as through science advice (e.g. Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Table) or introducing regulations to alter public behaviour (e.g. mask mandates).
Some of the important questions to consider here are: what should count as evidence? Which science advisory mechanisms are most effective? How do we interweave traditional Indigenous knowledge with western science knowledge? What if the input between two knowledge systems are in conflict? The answers to these questions will change depending on the policy context, and as evidence and science policy evolve.
Policy-making takes place across several branches within government.
The federal government consists of three branches, all of which play a role in developing and implementing public policy. For example, the Legislative Branch (or, Parliament) comprises the House of Commons and the Senate, and is responsible for debating and passing new bills. There are some key documents that point to current federal policy priorities, including the Speech from the Throne, the federal budget, and ministerial mandate letters. There are several opportunities for the public to provide input into some of these documents, such as by participating in pre-budget consultations. Learn more about what’s in a budget, and what to consider when it comes to preparing a pre-budget submission.
Policy decisions are influenced by many factors.
Public policy does not follow a linear process. First, while scientific evidence can inform policy decisions, it is not the only source of information used by decision-makers. Rather, the integration of science and policy happens in the context of other crucial diplomatic, political, economic, legal, cultural, and social considerations. Second, there is often more than just one decision-maker tasked with a specific policy file, necessitating broader discussion and cooperation. Third, the goals of each policy may vary, and can range from informing, incentivizing, or compelling stakeholders.
Similarly, the policy instruments or resources available to implement policy also differ depending on the situation, and level of jurisdiction. The abundance of priorities, goals, and key stakeholders means that it is crucial to keep broader policy contexts in mind when providing scientific evidence to policy-makers.
Ensure your message is relevant, and addresses the policy-makers’ needs.
If a decision-maker can’t easily connect the dots between the evidence or recommendations being provided, they are less likely to take action. This means understanding the decision-maker’s own context is vital to tailoring your message. Next, break your message into key and clearly stated components. These should include a description of the current issue at hand, key factors to consider (in addition to the scientific perspective), if the evidence supports or opposes a policy position, and recommendations for next steps. The end result is a compelling narrative with a clearly defined need and call to action.
There are several ways to deliver your message to policy-makers, including testifying in front of committees, meeting with elected representatives, or preparing a briefing note or policy brief. A briefing note is generally one to two pages long, is written in accessible language, explores available policy options, and recommends a particular “ask.” An effective policy brief draws clear links between research findings and policy initiatives, with the goal of helping policy-makers take informed decisions.
“Oh, the places you’ll go! […]You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself any direction you choose.”
While Dr. Seuss may not have been thinking specifically about science policy when he wrote those words in 1990, his advice resonates. There are many roles that exist at the intersection of science, society, and policy. You may choose to influence policy from outside government, or by working in government to contribute to policy-making. Finally, getting involved in science policy can be an ongoing long-term commitment, where you contribute by writing op-eds, volunteering for advocacy campaigns, or in a way that feels impactful to you.
I went into the S2PA with less than two weeks of direct experience in the science-policy interface, and came out with 40 pages of notes, and a valuable network of emerging leaders and established experts. My mind is now buzzing with all of this new information, and potential opportunities to explore science policy. I’m also excited to see what the inaugural S2PA cohort will do with what they learned during the program!