The Complex Role of Science Advice in Informing Policy

Posted on Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Author: Dr. Mona Nemer

Chief Science Advisor of Canada

 

Hello, good afternoon everyone, and thank you for this warm welcome! It’s great to be here – in person – for the first time in more than two years!

In all my time working at the University of Ottawa, I have had many occasions to be in this room for various events and activities, but never before has it looked so full! I guess that two years of lockdown really makes you appreciate what our gathering spaces are all about.

Thank you all for being here.

I am deeply honoured to deliver this year's Bromley Lecture and to join the distinguished list of previous speakers – some of whom I have had the pleasure of hosting as Vice President of Research at this university in the not-so-distant past!

Allow me to underscore the longstanding relationship between George Washington University and the University of Ottawa.

It is a partnership that has done so much to encourage student mobility as well as promote multidisciplinary research and the science and science policy nexus. I am grateful for these laudable efforts and delighted they brought us here this afternoon.

As the largest universities in their respective capital cities, these two institutions of higher learning are the flagships of the thriving academic relationship between our nations’ capitals.

They represent our shared values and culture, and moreover, the longstanding, extraordinary alliance and deep friendship between Americans and Canadians.

Washington D.C. was the first international city I travelled to after taking office. It was November, and coming from Ottawa, a trip to D.C. was like going on a tropical vacation that time of year. But more importantly, I had the opportunity to meet with my American colleagues in science policy and appreciate the seamless working relationship between key players in the science advisory system, from the U.S. National Academies to well-established organizations like the AAAS, and culminating with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which advises the highest office in the nation and whose very existence is enshrined in legislation.

My office has built up a great working relationship with the OSTP and are currently working with them on their scientific integrity framework. We have a lot to share and a lot to learn from each other.

The OSTP has had many decades to establish itself, and in fact, the man we are remembering today, Dr. Allan Bromley, was himself its director from 1989 to 1993.

Born and raised in Canada, Dr. Bromley earned his PhD in physics at the University of Rochester, taught there for a few years, then returned to Canada before heading back to the U.S. to teach at Yale and eventually go on to advise two presidents.

Over the decades, the ease with which he was able to move across our border to study, work and contribute to society speaks to the interconnectedness between Canadians and Americans that we have probably all lived — perhaps even taken for granted — but that is nevertheless remarkable.

I, myself, know this from experience, as the U.S. was my first “second home” after leaving Lebanon.

From doing my undergraduate in Wichita, to doing graduate studies in Montreal, to working in Bethesda, to completing my training in New York, to carrying out research in two different Canadian provinces, and now advising the federal government in Ottawa, I have experienced first-hand, and benefited from, the rich diversity of North American culture.

In a time when so many countries’ borders are rife with conflict, our two nations are joined by the longest peaceful border the world has ever seen.

The fact that we share so much provides us all with both freedoms and opportunities.

We see this not only in the millions of our citizens who cross the border every day to work, trade, shop and visit; or in the innovative business relationships or in the students who study at our schools; or even in our scientific partnerships… But also in our shared values. Embracing diversity as a strength. Making decisions based on evidence. Knowing that science and innovation improve our lives.

In this regard, Prime Minster Trudeau and President Biden recently signed the Roadmap for a Renewed Canada–U.S. Partnership — a blueprint for guiding our partnerships in six general areas:

  • Fighting covid-19,
  • building back better,
  • accelerating climate ambitions,
  • building global alliances, and
  • bolstering security and defence, and
  • advancing diversity and inclusion.

All of these are important areas for building security and prosperity, but what strikes me most is that each of these priorities benefits from — if not outright depends on — effective science policy.

After two years of the COVID pandemic, we have learned a few lessons: How science was our exit strategy from the crisis. How international collaborations were key to developing and deploying solutions. How coordination was critical for cross-border policy. And how an emergency is no time to start developing trusted relations between people and their institutions — or between countries. These need to already be in place. That is what I want to talk to you about today: why all aspects of our decision making need to be appropriately informed by the relevant scientific evidence, why collaboration among established networks of experts is key to finding solutions to our global challenges, and why getting there requires the interest and engagement of our youth, our next science and science policy leaders.

In accepting the position of Chief Science Advisor, I wanted to increase the visibility and place of science in decision making and to improve the scientific culture of our society. I never imagined that I would be living and working through a once-in-a-century global pandemic. From a science advice perspective, words cannot describe what the past two years were like. No one would ever wish for another pandemic, but it is important to recognize that what we have been going through does have a silver lining: It has given us the opportunity to see research inform policy-making in real time.

As a consequence, more and more people have become open to and aware of science. That includes not just politicians and decision makers, but business owners, community organizers, artists, educators and the public. Yes, certainly there are science deniers out there, and there are people with whom we need to build more trust in science. But overall, the pandemic has helped to raise the profile of science. In fact, a report done by the Wellcome Foundation found that, globally, those who said they trust scientists “a lot” rose from 34% in 2018 to 43% by the end of 2020 — and that was before we had widespread rollout of highly effective vaccines!

Bringing science directly into people’s lives, and demonstrating that science saves lives, has had an impact. Can you recall a time in the past when you have seen regularly, and for over two years, so many scientists speaking to main media outlets and actively present on social media? Throughout the entire pandemic, we have seen scientists step up and not only provide advice to governments but communicate and explain science to the public — on a variety of issues.

That is because there was really no aspect to this health crisis that shouldn’t be informed by science. When I established expert advisory panels early in the pandemic, we had representation from a wide diversity of scientists. We had not only epidemiologists, virologists and physicians, but also mathematicians who do modelling, as well as risk and behavioural scientists who weighed in on the socio-psychological dimensions of the pandemic and the dynamic public health measures.

Those panels were just one of the many invaluable networks we established. I also worked regularly with my international counterparts and with science advisors in other levels of government to share expert opinions, learn from the experiences of other jurisdictions, and to coordinate advice to our respective governments.

This was vitally important, notably because of the increased demand for rapid scientific advice — across many disciplines, and in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis. Other challenges for scientists and science advisors included:

  • coping with the abundance of misinformation and disinformation;
  • effectively communicating uncertainties; and  
  • explaining the scientific process as knowledge of the virus and public policy evolved.

Having established networks helped us immensely and will continue to ensure better emergency preparedness and better communication of advice.

Coordinated science advice is vital to good decision making, but it’s also important to recognize that government decisions invariably take into consideration additional inputs ranging from economics to legal or diplomatic implications, to societal values and public opinion.

Take, for example, the issue of mask mandates throughout the pandemic. Scientific evidence supports decisions to wear masks to reduce the spread of covid-19. While the science may have been clear, additional inputs factored into public health guidelines and mandates. What about individual freedoms and personal choice? What about availability and access to masks? The point is, science cannot tell us directly what we should or shouldn’t do. It can only tell us what is likely to happen if we do, or don’t do, something.

Understanding the appropriate role of science is important to allow policy makers to ask the right questions and to help scientists provide useful answers. It is also essential for the public to appreciate the basis for public policy, as this builds trust and increases the likelihood of its adoption. Part of this involves effectively communicating scientific uncertainties. That means ensuring people — policy makers and the public alike — understand that science is a process. As new evidence emerges, our knowledge and understanding of a given situation grows. And when our evidence base evolves, so too should the decisions that are founded on it. This is something that we need to effectively communicate by being open and transparent about our processes.

In reaching out to our audiences, whether they be policy makers or the public, and understanding where they are coming from, we help to build the trust that is essential for creating a scientifically informed society.

So when you’re considering how science and policy work together, keep in mind all of the ways in which your knowledge and expertise can play a role. Science-trained professionals create a kind of connective tissue that is important in government and other decision-making spaces, as well as in public communication. We can see that in a couple of ways.

First, the impacts of science are not limited to your labs, your fieldwork and academic scholarship. What scientists do affects society, and there is a certain level of responsibility for us to inform, to build trust, and to help ensure that research and technologies are used well.

Second, we need science-trained professionals in all sectors. Having scientists as well as policy experts at all levels of government decision-making creates a common language and mutual understanding. This is crucial in today’s world where inter-sector collaboration has never been more important to deal with our biggest challenges.

We know that a diversity of perspectives, expertise, and lived experiences results in better and more creative problem-solving.

I want to specifically address tomorrow’s leaders. In many ways, your generation is much more reflective of the rich diversity of our society and so we need your voices at the table even more.

When I took on the role of CSA, I knew that I wanted to incorporate youth perspectives in the advice I provide. Two years ago, we recruited 20 bright young scientists from across the country to be on my first youth council. And even though the pandemic has thrown challenges in their way, they have continually impressed me.
This group of young scientists has contributed on issues such as the response to covid-19, open science and the next scientific frontier. I have always been impressed by their insight and the diversity of perspectives they bring, informed by their life experiences and the communities and disciplines they represent.

We are living through unprecedented times — society is becoming ever more digital, technologies are advancing at breakneck speed, and climate change is no longer a matter of the future but a reality of the present. Some have called this time the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution. It’s a time of automation, the internet of things, cloud computing, cognitive and quantum computing, and artificial intelligence. Your generation will lead the charge into this exciting new “Imagination Age.” And it’s in your best interest to be a part of decision-making, to help shape policies that will impact your lives.

You’re not just the leaders of tomorrow, you have the power to be leaders of today.

You don’t have to aim right away for the highest level of influence. You can start local — at your institution, in your community, in your city.

For example, my office, through a partnership with the Canadian Science Policy Centre, has established the Science Meets Parliament program, which connects scientists and parliamentarians in an effort to build dialogue and ongoing relationships for evidence-informed policy.

And it’s not just established scientists who are getting involved. We have also seen that there is a growing network in Canada of students who are interested in science policy.

This very university has its own student group, the Ottawa Science Policy Network. At McGill, the University of Toronto, and many other institutions, students are organizing and getting involved. This engagement – your engagement – is vital.

Pandemics are not the only challenges our societies face and will have to deal with. From climate change mitigation and adaptation, to food security, migration, social justice, natural resources exploitation, combating disinformation and societal polarization, scientists and policy makers will have to work together and strive to build public trust.

Whether taking on global challenges, providing evidence for good decision-making, building critical thinking skills or helping to inspire wonder and discovery, science is vital to our lives, to our societies and to democracy. It is our greatest tool for building peace and understanding.

Looking at the U.S. and Canada’s shared air, environment, supply chains and societal values, I see immense opportunities for working together. I also see immense benefits for the world from our bilateral and multilateral collaborations. 

I encourage you to use your knowledge and expertise to serve at home, across our border and throughout the world in your own way. Share your science, your discoveries and your knowledge for the public good.

After all, to quote Louis Pasteur, “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity and is the torch which illuminates the world.” We have lived these profound words over the past two years, and you will no doubt appreciate them in the years to come.

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