Department of Geography, Environment, and Geomatics, uOttawa
On April 15, 2021, the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa and the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy at the George Washington University hosted Sethuraman Panchanathan, the Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), as part of the 2021 Bromley Memorial Event. This blog is an adaptation of the author’s remarks.
When I started in the field of Science Policy, I was not convinced that my research interests fit. My academic career began at the University of Toronto where I earned an Honours B.A. in Sexual Diversity Studies and Sociology. I changed my interests when I came to the University of Ottawa to study Environmental Sociology. I used this pedagogical background to inspire the creation of my first business, and the subject of my M.A. Thesis, H2Ottawa. When my supervisor suggested that the crux of my PhD dissertation research actually belonged in a field called “Science Policy”, everything that I thought I was trained for came into question.
My dissertation research investigates ancillary outcomes within the collaborative management of salmon fisheries on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Undoubtably, the relationships between people and their land, or oceans in this case, fit within the fields of geography and sociology. But what about science policy?
I defended my comprehensive exam in 2020. I was speaking about the applications of “hard science” on communal life, when I was interrupted by one of my committee members, also an incredibly successful researcher. She said, “Are you insinuating that the social sciences are soft?”. I know that my work is not soft. It's implementable, it's practical, and it has the potential to change lives. It was in that moment that I realized: my work is not based upon science but synonymous with it.
The field of science policy enables researchers to use scientific data as inspiration for policy. In my research, the natural state of fisheries is a condition that sociologists consider in relation to the communities that rely on it. When it comes to impact, policy makers take this data to inform how to best manage the resource. Without science, I would not have the information required to understand the state of the resource. Without sociology, I would not understand how and in which ways this may impact communities. Without both, there is no informed impact.
When I started my PhD, I journeyed out to Vancouver Island on a federal government grant. The assignment was to interrogate the processes of fisheries management. When I arrived, I had the privilege of sitting in on various roundtable meetings. These meetings were premised upon the idea of collaborative management. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which is a federal institution, funds these meetings. They do this because their mandate includes “ensuring that Canada’s aquatic ecosystems and fisheries are sustainable and economically successful.”
The roundtables on the west coast of Vancouver Island that I work with are geographically situated in close proximity to the fisheries in question. Third party facilitators are hired to engage Indigenous groups, fisheries stakeholders, scientists, and civil servants, to collaborate in the well-rounded management of fisheries. This is important because they bring a diversity of knowledges into conversation. In other words, the people who are impacted and who impact these fisheries are given voice.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans historically, did not want to relinquish their control of fisheries management. Essentially, fisheries policy—across the entire nation—was made in Ottawa. Scientists were stationed across the country to observe the status of fisheries at predetermined times, but there was little to no communal engagement. This style of management contributed to in the East Coast cod collapse of 1992, which devastated the impacted communities. Understanding the state of a resource requires consistent monitoring. The Department took this as a lesson and adapted their style of management, engaging Indigenous groups and fisheries stakeholders across the country to act as their eyes and ears. Creating a space where different knowledge groups can explain their insights and why they believe them to be true is integral to the creation of effective and just policy.
On the plane ride home, my mind was a sea of ideas. I heard sad stories, like one Indigenous person who told me that they used to be able to walk across streams on the backs of salmon because they were so abundant. They explained the all-encompassing pain from the lack of salmon returns, not only from an economic perspective, but because this was intrinsic to their worldview, spirituality, and way of life. There were also happy stories, like one stakeholder who told me that when a certain plant blooms in their yard, it meant that the spring salmon would be returning. And of course, there were technical stories, like scientists explaining best practices for optimal yields. For me, all of these experiences together create a story; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
So, let’s bring it back. What is science policy and why is it important to society? Because it’s mutually beneficial. We have our problems. Take the diminishing salmon returns. Scientists discover what is going on in nature, building a basis of understanding, and social scientists discover how to adapt that reality to lived experiences. Here, there isn’t a dichotomy between “hard” and “soft” science. Working in those silos will only contribute to events like the cod collapse. To achieve effective policy, we need to work in evolution with one another, using our skill sets to complement one another for the greater good.