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Taking the helm for the coming year

I’m beyond delighted to join Evidence for Democracy as Interim Executive Director, and grateful to have this opportunity to share with you a few things that are on my mind as I take on this role.
Vanessa Sung

But first things first.

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been nearly two weeks since I joined E4D. I’ve spent that time getting to know the team and Board of Directors (who are fabulous!), and catching up on the organization’s ongoing work. The opportunity to lead an organization whose mission I believe in is great in and of itself, but for me, this feels extra special because E4D figures prominently in my science policy origin story.

It was 2015 and I was a doctoral student spending a late evening in the lab. In my ears was a podcast as usual, and that evening it was Quirks and Quarks. Bob McDonald was interviewing Dr. Katie Gibbs, who spoke about the role of science in that year’s federal election, the actions she had mobilized with a group of scientists to protest the “Death of Evidence” at the hands of the government of the day, and the organization called Evidence for Democracy that she co-founded to advocate for evidence-informed decision-making. I put my pipette down to listen as this unfamiliar world of science policy and science advocacy opened its door to me. I was hooked.

Ever since, I’ve worked to advocate for and contribute to the well-being of the Canadian scientific enterprise, first as an E4D volunteer, next finding my way to leadership roles in student societies and non-profit organizations like Science & Policy Exchange, then to the Office of the Chief Science Advisor, and now back to E4D. It’s a lovely full circle moment.

Vanessa Sung

Ten years on from the Death of Evidence rally (and seven years since that night in the lab), thanks to the determined efforts of scientists, grassroots organizations, and leaders in Canada’s science and research community, there’s undoubtedly been progress.

But… It’s still complicated. High-profile recommendations have come and gone, some addressed, others left partially or fully to languish on dusty shelves.

Notably though, the idea of evidence-informed policy-making seems commonplace. Government policy announcements often include the assertion that decisions were made “based on science and evidence”. But what does that mean, exactly? And can we evaluate the government’s performance on this front? Good vibes and general claims about being pro-scientific evidence aren’t enough. The promise of evidence-informed decision-making demands that they show their work.

At E4D, we’ve been digging into these questions through the lens of transparency. We asked: can the evidence behind policy decisions be found by the lay public such that they can understand and scrutinize the considerations that led to those decisions? Earlier this year, our analysis in the Eyes on Evidence II report revealed that the answer was decidedly no at the federal level.

But what about the provincial level? As we’ve seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, provincial governments make policies that tend to impact our daily lives more directly. We’ve also seen in real time the damage that can be wrought by confusing policies lacking clear rationales, both to individual citizens and to the social fabric. So we turned our Eyes on Evidence toward provinces, applying the same framework to assess the transparency of evidence usage in policies by three provincial governments. Those results will be coming your way very soon, in our next Eyes on Evidence report. Stay tuned!

The ability for citizens to hold their governments accountable for their policies is not just a nice-to-have — it’s essential for a healthy and robust democracy. Leveraging the insights derived from our body of work on transparency, we’ll set forth recommended actions to push toward closing the gap on transparent policy-making in Canada.

I’m excited to get to work. I’m excited to have deep and interesting conversations about evidence with elected officials, public servants, stakeholders, and the public alike. And I’m excited to work with E4D’s talented team to create impact.

Now, while my main responsibility this year will be to guide the organization on its current course, there are a few additional goals I’d like to advance towards. In particular, I hope to expand E4D’s engagement with the broader public who are not already plugged into the science and science policy space. Putting the transparent use of evidence at the heart of public policy benefits all Canadians, and there’s a receptive, maybe even enthusiastic, audience out there if we can successfully reach them. If you have creative ideas on public outreach, or any of E4D’s initiatives, my (virtual) door is always open!

Finally, I want to end with a big thank you to friends, colleagues, and members of the E4D community for the warm welcome I’ve received. These have been busy days but your well wishes put a smile on my face and a pep in my step. We have big plans ahead and I hope we can count on your continued support!

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