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Breakfast Session - Skills and competencies where science and policy meet

Conference Day: 
Day 2 - November 8th 2018
Takeaways and recommendations: 

Skills and competencies where science and policy meet – MITACS science policy fellows

Speakers: Alejandro Adem, Chief Executive Officer and Scientific Director, Mitacs Inc.; Gail Bowkett, Director, Innovation Policy, Mitacs Inc.; David Castle, Vice-President Research, Professor in the University of Victoria’s School of Public Administration; Scott Findlay, Director of Graduate Studies at the Institute of Environment, University of Ottawa; Katie Gibbs, Co-founder and Executive Director, Evidence for Democracy

Embedded academics learn how evidence can inform policy

If Ottawa and the provinces want to ensure their decisions are informed by the best evidence, they need researchers who understand how government and policymaking work.

“As a researcher I want to know what’s going on in government and I think government wants to know how research informs what they’re doing,” Mitacs CEO and Scientific Director Dr. Alejandro Adem told CSPC delegates.

That was the impetus behind Mitacs’ decision to launch the Canadian Science Policy Fellowships. Modelled on a longstanding program managed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in the U.S., the two-year-old Canadian pilot program has so far embedded 51 academic researchers and scientists in government, several of whom have since joined the government as public servants.

“These are scientists and researchers who are moving into government for first time. They are working on the policy side and learning how to apply their research background and networks and skills in government policy,” said Gail Bowkett, Mitacs’ Director of Innovation Policy.

The program aims to build science policy capacity within government, and within the broader academic community. Delivered in partnership with the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP), the one-year fellowships help post-doctoral fellows and academic researchers understand the type of evidence government needs, and how science can best meet those needs. It equips fellows with the skills and competencies required to understand policy and science, communicate scientific knowledge, and advise policy makers.

Mitacs fellows are embedded in various federal departments and agencies, and with the British Columbia government. More provinces are expected to join.

“Oftentimes our thinking, particularly in Canada about science policy, is that it is a federal matter. But there are sub-national dimensions to science policy that we also need to think about because provinces have jurisdiction over a number of things that require evidentiary inputs that they won’t necessarily get directly, or in a relevant or timely way from the federal system,” said Dr. David Castle, Vice-President Research at the University of Victoria.

Addressing skill gaps in science policy

Delegates heard how both researchers and policymakers would benefit from new skills and competencies that would improve government’s ability to incorporate science into its decision making.

Bowkett highlighted a cluster of skills and practices, identified by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, to address the gap between the supply of, and demand for, policy-relevant research, and to maximize the value and impact of research in policy:

  • Understanding policy & science

  • Interpersonal skills

  • Synthesizing research

  • Managing expert communities

  • Communicating scientific knowledge

  • Advising policymakers

  • Engaging with citizens and stakeholders

  • Monitoring & evaluation

“What I like about this framework is that it focuses on a collective skillset, so any one of these clusters applies both to the policymaker side of the equation as well as the scientist/researcher side of equation,” said Bowkett.

Scott Findlay suggested other competencies that need to be developed:

  • Distinguishing normative and factual elements and claims,

  • The ability to appropriately assess the strength of scientific evidence or lack of, and

  • How to request and communicate proper and appropriate evidence summary.

While competencies are important, Findlay stressed that attitudes are an even bigger issue when it comes to linking science and policy. For example, the University of Ottawa professor said “scientific hubris” leads researchers to believe they can advise on research areas where they have little or no expertise.

“The second set of beliefs that I think are problematic has to do with this notion that science is value-free. I would argue that embedded actually in the scientific method there are value issues.” Finlay explained, for example, that not all decisions are made beyond a reasonable doubt and that having a lower standard “in no shape or way, delegitimizes the decision that is being rendered”.

A third problematic belief, said Finlay, is the populist view of science. “It’s this notion that if it’s not important to the public, then it’s not important”. But he said if government is serious about its responsibility to educate and inform the public, “You can’t use the importance of science in the public space as the sole metric for judging whether science, investment in science or taking stock of sciences is an appropriate way to proceed.”

Another issue for Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, is equipping academic researchers with the skills they need to engage more with policy. She said the biggest mystery for a lot of scientists is how government and the policy process work, including which level of government they should approach, whether they should engage with bureaucrats or politicians first, or even who to talk to within the public service.

Gibbs added that it’s important for academic scientists to also recognize the role social sciences such as public policy, political science and communications play in decision-making.

“There are so many worlds within social sciences that are relevant to scientists who are starting to do policy,” said Gibbs. “Try to seek out those collaborations within these other fields. It’s quite likely there are other people working on the issue you’re interested in.”

How institutions can do better

In a word, “training”, said Gibbs. Science policy fellowships and events like the CSPC or work being done by Evidence for Democracy are steps in the right direction, but their impact will continue to be limited unless there is an effort to incorporate policy skills training into the scientific curriculum at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

For that to happen, offer incentives to professors to provide this new training component and incentives to students and academics to participate.

Findlay suggested embedding policy training directly in the scientific process, including a recognition that even science is limited. “We have a fairly good idea in training of scientists what science can do and to what it can speak, but we have less clear idea about what it can’t do, its limitations, and what it ought not be trying to speak.”

Scientists also need to disseminate their research in ways that policymakers can access, such as through open access journals. Better yet, write concise evidence summaries that are understandable, digestible and usable to policymakers.

“On the other side of the equation,” added Bowkett, “policymakers need to have a better understanding of what the evidence means and where the evidence comes from and what the scientific process is and the rigour through which that evidence has come through the scientific process.”

However, for that to happen, Findlay said policymakers – or the “evidence consumers” – need training in how to clearly communicate the type of evidence they need.

“We need to set up a system whereby the people who are requesting the scientific evidence do so in a manner that the producers of the scientific evidence have a clear idea of what is required to make the evidence they provide useful to the decision makers,” said Findlay.

At the same time, Bowkett said researchers must recognize that science is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to policymaking. “Policymaking is messy. There are all kinds of subjective elements to it. There are all kinds of judgement involved. For the scientists, that can be a bit of a head scratcher because you’re standing behind your science, saying, ‘The answer’s right here. Why aren’t you doing what the evidence says?’”

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