Good Science Policy Will Require Good Communication and Better Support: A Night Out With CAUT

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Matthew McKean, Policy Analyst, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

In what turns out to have been the run up to the unveiling of the federal government’s new Science, Technology, and Innovation Strategy (ST&I), the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) launched its “Get Science Right” campaign. The goal of the November 27 town hall was to “lay the groundwork for a new direction for science policy” and much of what was discussed was emphatically relevant to the humanities and social sciences community.

Moderated by science journalist Mike De Souza, the evening event took the form of a lively discussion among panelists, including Diane Beauchemin, Chemistry Professor, Queen’s University, Ted Hsu, Science & Technology Critic, Member of Parliament, Liberal Party of Canada, Béla Joós, Physics Professor, University of Ottawa, Christina Muehlberger, PhD Candidate, Sociology & Political Economy, Carleton University, Tim Powers, Vice-President, Summa Strategies, and Kennedy Stewart, Science & Technology Critic, Member of Parliament, New Democratic Party of Canada. An invitation was extended to Ed Holder, Minister of State, Science & Technology, to participate, but no government representative was present.

The scientists and S&T critics on the panel described a dismal and worsening scientific culture in Canada, in which Canada’s scientific institutions are slowly being dismantled by the federal government. Scientists are faced with waning interest and funding; as a result, they went on to say, opportunities to speak publicly about their research and scientific progress are being undermined. The panelists called for renewed investment in basic, independent, scientist-led research and increased support for government science.

Science, social sciences, and humanities researchers, it turns out, are looking for more or less the same thing: namely, an all-party commitment at the federal level to an intellectually and financially sound long-term strategy predicated on support for basic, independent research. And while there are obstacles, the panelists were the first to point out that not all of them are expressly political.

Peer-review remains an enigma. Kennedy Stewart, a political scientist by training, explained that the mechanisms by which the scientific community validates research mean very little to policy-makers. Ted Hsu, a physicist by training, questioned whether uptake by the public is any different, but emphasized that the onus is on scientists to explain their research, articulate its significance, resolve contradictions and confusion, and be better communicators in general. Simply put, researchers, especially university-based researchers, need to be more vocal. Otherwise, it is far too easy, Béla Joós went on to say, for the government to ignore them.

The government, agreed the panelists, needs to know what scientists are thinking and doing. This takes effort and it can also require a degree of backtracking, noted Hsu. It’s understandable that researchers want to say something new, to communicate their latest findings. But sometimes, certain things bear repeating over again in order to connect the concerns of the research community with the concerns of the government and the public. Humanities and social sciences researchers—take note.

Researchers of all stripes must debate and discuss their work publicly and accessibly. In so doing, they must address the government’s role in creating research policy, the difference between researchers in universities and government, how to ensure the integrity and independence of researchers, how funding is allocated, and who should control the message. The pace at which researchers explore new ideas, the public accepts them, and the government enacts them into policy also remains wildly out of sync. What needs bridging, the panelists argued, is the long-term horizon of researchers with the short-term needs of government, and it’s up to researchers to figure out how to do it.

The key conclusion from the panel was nonetheless the importance of speaking up, speaking out, and speaking well. This requires an environment free of muzzling for scientists and researchers alike – and government decision-makers willing to join the conversation.




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