A lack of good evidence undermines our ability to make informed decisions—from what to eat to who to vote for—threatening both our personal lives and the health of our democracy.
With this in mind, Evidence for Democracy (E4D) launched Evidence Matters in March 2023, their first public awareness campaign to empower Canadians to navigate evidence in everyday life.
E4D organized several online events throughout the month of March, starting with a webinar walking through their New Guides to Understanding and Asking for Evidence. Panel discussions were then held every Wednesday, based around the following topics: Bringing Science and Democracy Together in the Classroom, Empowering Citizens with Evidence, and A Conversation with Canada’s Chief Science Advisor. Expert speakers from E4D, Let’s Talk Science, CIVIX Canada, The Global Commission on Evidence, The Samara Centre for Democracy, Science Up First, award-winning journalists, and Canada’s Chief Science Advisor herself contributed to fruitful discussions at those events.
In Part II of our Evidence Matters summaries, we share key takeaways from E4D’s conversation with Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer.
A Conversation With Canada’s Chief Science Advisor
As described by Dr. Mona Nemer, the roles of Canada’s Chief Science Advisor (CSA) in the federal government are to 1) provide scientific advice to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Members, 2) enhance the science ecosystem within Canada, and 3) promote science and scientific dialogues between scientists and the general public. Other countries, such as the USA, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, also have a similar role as the CSA, in the form of individuals or groups. These different Science Advisors have frequent communication amongst themselves to address global challenges such as COVID-19, climate change, and threats to biodiversity.
Science advice is the outcome of collecting, analyzing, and summarizing the knowns and unknowns of a particular topic, such as the effects of long COVID. Dr. Nemer emphasized that no one is an expert on everything, and science advisors themselves seek the perspectives of relevant experts to provide the most accurate advice possible. Following the collection of information, science advisors synthesize the available evidence for the government to facilitate their decision-making process. In addition to the CSA, there are other pathways in Canada where scientific evidence can reach the government, such as the Royal Society of Canada reports, scientific committees, and university researchers, but these pathways are often under-utilized.
It’s important to note that the CSA provides evidence to the government but is not involved in the decision-making process. This means that a decision could be at odds with the evidence provided. Dr. Nemer mentioned the importance of approaching her advisory role with humility, and stressed that scientific evidence is only one of the many factors the government must consider, such as financial feasibility, legality, and political priority.
Dr. Nemer also discussed lessons learned by the Canadian government as a result of their management of the COVID-19 pandemic, with an emphasis on ways to rebuild public trust. In particular, she mentioned the need to focus on transparency of evidence used in the policymaking process, such as the evidence considered when various mandates were imposed. Much of the time the public was told to trust the science or to trust their elected officials, but were not given the opportunity to understand the information themselves, a necessary step towards making informed decisions in their own lives. Secondly, Dr. Nemer highlighted the power that the public has in holding decision-makers accountable, both in terms of ensuring those in power consider the best available evidence in decision-making, but also regarding the transparency of that evidence-use. She encouraged the audience to keep the dialogue going and make sure their voices are heard. Finally, Dr. Nemer mentioned that initiatives to improve science literacy within both the general public and the government are needed to set realistic expectations and to adequately prepare for the next public health crisis.
The biggest lesson that Dr. Nemer has learned during her tenure is that we can’t take science for granted. Science needs to be routinely integrated into policymaking to achieve the best results. The CSA will continue to mediate the interaction of different stakeholders in our society, but researchers and policymakers also need to initiate discussions of their own. She also hopes that the CSA could become a permanent position in Canada as it is currently not a legislated position and could be removed with a change of government or priorities.
The pandemic has highlighted society’s need for access to accurate and trustworthy information in order for both policymakers and citizens to make informed decisions. We hope the key messages from the Evidence Matters campaign outlined here inspire you to learn more about your right to access and understand evidence, and offer ways forward for effective evidence-use by the public and the government.