Budget 2019 announced $459 million of new and renewed support for several leading science and technology-based organizations. This should be applauded and celebrated. Together with Budget 2018’s $4 billion injection for fundamental science, and the recent announcement of a new Canadian space strategy, a strong foundation has been laid for important new discoveries and ground-breaking innovations that will benefit both Canadians and the world. Canada’s science and technology community has done a formidable job in persuading the government to make scientific research a top priority. It is likely that federal support for science is now higher than it has been in a generation.
However, despite this significant progress, science- and research-related stakeholders cannot allow themselves to assume that this high-level public and political support will carry on indefinitely. The community must now concern itself with making sure Canadians understand three things: what are all these new activities going to achieve, how are they implicated in the results, and why should they support ongoing use of tax dollars to fund them?
Assume that change is inevitable and prepare for it.
Economies change, government mandates change, priorities change. Unforeseen events can easily swing public and political attention, and science-related issues could unfortunately lose their resonance with decision makers if louder and clearer voices overtake them.
Far too often, stakeholders who have experienced success over an extended period become complacent. They assume that carrying on with the same game plan will continue to bring them similar outcomes in the future. They fail to modify their approach within a shifting policy environment. They don’t adapt their messaging to ensure engagement with new audiences. They experience a failure to communicate. All those years of positive influence could come to an abrupt halt if appropriate measures are not taken to buffer these inevitable transitions.
So what can be done to proactively ensure that support for robust science policy and related investments remain as top priorities?
Information + communication delivers knowledge. Knowledge + narrative delivers hearts and minds.
Maintaining support for major public investments in science and innovation takes more than impassioned arguments. The benefits are not always obvious. When dealing with complex subject-matter, the solution is clear, simple, messaging.
The most important part about communicating science-based messages isn’t the science at all. It’s the people on both sides of the equation. Know your audience and give them what they need. People tend to support what they understand and reject what they don’t. Senior government officials, political leaders, and the public require messages that engage, inform, build confidence, and motivate action. Implementing principled science communication and audience-centred plain language is key to ensuring a broad understanding and justification for science and technology-related initiatives.
Tell a story. People tend to support things they identify with and that matter to them on a personal level. Embrace strategies that focus on transforming complex information into compelling narratives that can engage a range of audiences with different needs and motivations. Build a storyline that elicits strong support for innovative ideas, long-term planning, and, of course, associated funding.
Timing is everything. Always be communicating.
Don’t wait for government and public priorities to change before you start this process. Intervene early and often. Use a variety of tactics. Take advantage of data visualization approaches. Visual and dynamic content often provides the greatest impact.
To maintain progress, Canada’s science and technology community needs to stay one step ahead of the game with well-prepared, clear, and consistent messages that connect with leaders and decision-makers in this upcoming season of change.