Effective policy making needs voices from the social sciences and humanities

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Guest blog by Steve Higham, Policy Analyst

Poorly informed policy decisions can have significant and lasting consequences. Often, critics assume that negative policy decisions can be avoided if only decision makers are guided by data and scientific evidence. However, data and evidence are not the only factors that inform the policy-making process. On most issues, decisions will be influenced by cultural and political considerations, with corresponding beliefs, principles, and values that a government may or may not support.

This is not necessarily a negative aspect of the policymaking process. Without proper context and understanding, decisions based solely on data and evidence can be incomplete, unpopular, or lead to unintended consequences. As policymakers seek informed ways to respond to complex and multifaceted challenges, they require the perspectives of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, including the social sciences and humanities.

Changing technologies, such as artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, and automation, are expected to have profound economic and social impacts, and they raise important social and ethical questions that aren’t easily resolved by data and information alone. For example, as the collection of individual behaviour data becomes increasingly ubiquitous, how do we balance the desire for customizable, efficient services with our rights to privacy? If automation displaces large numbers of workers, how might we ensure that they remain engaged, contributing citizens? How should a driverless car value the life of a child versus an adult (or two adults) in a scenario where injury to one or the other is likely?

Further, in a “post-truth” world, both decision makers and ordinary citizens may feel skeptical about data and evidence if it is not presented and explained with proper context. Decision makers may view researchers as irrelevant academics who do not fully understand the nuances of policy-making processes. Citizens may view experts as out-of-touch “elitists” who use data and facts to advance their political or economic agendas.

Voices that can interpret, contextualize, and effectively communicate complex knowledge are essential to ensuring that issues are understood and policy responses are supported. These voices can, and often do, come from scientists and researchers with STEM degrees. However, the perspectives of philosophers, historians, political scientists, psychologists, and those from the many other branches of both the humanities and social sciences are equally important. To deal with pressing policy challenges like the ones described above, we need critical voices and new ideas from across disciplines.

The federal government appears to understand this, based on encouraging signs such as the Chief Science Advisor posting. The posting calls for applicants who can “combine knowledge and experience and effectively address the limits of science, the insufficiency of evidence, and appropriately framing uncertainties.” Further, The Federal Review of Fundamental Science has been tasked with determining if review processes and funding structures are “fair and effective in supporting excellence across all disciplines” (emphasis mine). And last fall, Canada’s Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan stated, “Social sciences and humanities researchers help us to understand issues affecting our daily lives and provide evidence for sound policy making.

But as enrolments in the humanities have fallen at universities across the country, and conversations of “science policy” at times tend to focus on the role of researchers from STEM backgrounds, the value of that the humanities and the social sciences bring to the policy-making process is worth exploring. For this reason, at Congress 2017, Mitacs will convene a panel of individuals who have direct experience informing policy from diverse perspectives, including two inaugural Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellows. They will meet to explore such questions as:

  • How do the humanities and social sciences fit into the relationship between the science and policy communities?
  • What are the strengths that researchers from the humanities and the social sciences have in influencing policy? What are the weaknesses?
  • How can policy-making processes be efficient and responsive while considering multiple perspectives?

Congress 2017 Career Corner: What’s next for your social sciences and humanities degree?
Mitacs is also hosting a Career Corner event on May 31, 2017, aimed at social sciences and humanities (SSH) graduate students interested in career opportunities outside academia.

About Mitacs
Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that delivers research and training programs for graduate students, postdocs, and faculty from across disciplines. We work with universities, companies and not-for-profit organizations, international partners, and governments to build partnerships that support social and industrial innovation in Canada.




Congress 2017