Essential Ingredient for Building Forward Better

Published On: November 2021Categories: 2021 Magazine, Canadian Science Policy Magazine, Editorial
A headshot of a Persian man with the title: Essential Ingredients for building forward better


Mehrdad Hariri

Canadian Science Policy Center

President and CEO

History shows that large scale tragedies have often brought profound changes in the way societies work and relate to each other. They have spawned new discourses, institutions, governance mechanisms, and creation of whole nation states. The global COVID-19 pandemic has similar disruptive potential. Will we seize it to build forward better?  How can we do so, particularly the way we govern ourselves and set policies?

Tragic dimensions notwithstanding, both World War one (WWI) and World War two (WWII) instigated the creation of new multilateral institutions. WWI resulted in the creation of the League of Nations, while WWII led to the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. WWII resulted in a whole new dimension of culture and understanding the world we live in, and the need for better coordination and collaboration. These were not entirely unifying, however, as we also saw the emergence of two nation blocks with radically distinct ideologies – the democratic West versus The Communist East. Western liberal democracies that embraced the new human rights doctrine and took a more open and flexible stance in social and economic spheres prospered much more so than those who adopted a command-and-control system. 

The COVID-19 pandemic was and, in some instances, remains a full-scale tragedy with similar disruptive potential. It has impacted almost all countries on the planet and has disrupted the world as we knew it. Millions of lives have been lost and many more lives impacted in a myriad of other ways. National and global economies have undergone a sea change of sorts, characterized by bloating budget deficits, global supply chain disruptions, and rising inflation. The pandemic has also impacted our collective psychosocial status as human beings, with unforeseen consequences. It has once again highlighted that large-scale tragedies demand coordination, collaboration, dealing with complexities, and open exchange of information and knowledge. This time, however, the dimensions of complexities are enormous.  We are facing existential threats such as climate change. Every single aspect of our life is shaped by complex technologies and having to deal with and make sense of tremendous amount of data that is being generated. Citizens are far more engaged in the public sphere through social media than was possible only two decades ago.  

An obvious outcome of the pandemic has been the critical role that science and evidence play in responding to pandemics. We have seen what happens when policy follows credible scientific evidence and when it does not. We have seen that building consensus across our communities and political parties is critical, especially in emergencies. Indeed, In Canada, we witnessed an unprecedented level of cooperation between municipal, provincial, and federal governments.  At the global level, the pandemic has also once again demonstrated the importance of global cooperation related to global health, but also other challenges such as climate change, poverty alleviation and many more. 

A key question going forward is whether and the extent to which the pandemic will have lasting impacts on our governance systems and policymaking at local, regional, national, and global levels. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a window of opportunity for us to profoundly change the way we engage in policymaking.  A major shift in our mindset and profound changes in our institutions are needed to ensure that we avail ourselves of opportunities to adopt new mechanisms of knowledge processing capacities at our disposal that can inform policymaking with greater precision and impact. 

A key aspect that has become apparent is the need for knowledge generation and analytic capacities that provide credible and timely scientific knowledge to inform policymaking. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that the need for more sophisticated and robust mechanisms to effectively translate scientific knowledge to guide policy development is real and pressing. Global and national challenges of climate change, population growth, rapid urbanization, and many others have strong scientific as well as sociopolitical dimensions. These all have global and local implications that are inherently intertwined. While the climate crisis is a global challenge, actions that must be undertaken are local and must account for contextual idiosyncrasies. As such, policy coordination across different levels of government is now more critical than ever 

We must strengthen our capacities to ensure that we can integrate various dimensions and involve different constituencies. Much more remains to be done to provide policymakers with high quality and credible scientific information in a timely and accessible manner. The establishment of the position of Chief Science Advisor was a recognition of this need and a major milestone, aimed at providing the Prime Minister and the cabinet with access to credible information. However, currently, there is no similar source for legislatures at various levels; national, provincial, territorial, and municipal, to get credible and timely scientific information, which is offered in a language and format that can be used in policy development. 

The COVID-19 pandemic will not be the last global health crisis. The climate crisis is gathering steam and its impacts are far reaching; cybersecurity threats and safeguarding citizens’ privacy are among many live challenges we actively grapple with. Scientific data on related matters is vast, growing and can be overwhelming to process effectively without adequate and appropriate resources. We nonetheless must expand the capacities to digest scientific insights and translate them to inform policy. If such capacities were viewed as a luxury in the past, the pandemic has certainly shown that such capacities are necessities going forward. 

Finally, two very important aspects are noteworthy; first that the reference to science here is not limited to natural and medical sciences and engineering. It also refers to social sciences and humanities. The COVID-19 pandemic has had many impacts on our society, the impacts of which have yet to be studied and understood. Second, finding ways to incorporate perspectives of diverse constituencies into policymaking, in particular those of indigenous communities, is critical to our collective future. The need for integration of indigenous knowledge into policymaking is equally if not more important than the integration of what we think of as conventional science. 

In conclusion, a key lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is that we do better when our policies account for scientific and indigenous knowledge and perspectives of different communities. We must get serious about building institutional capacities that enable better and more efficient integration of scientific and indigenous knowledge into policymaking. A better and more sustainable future depends on this integration. Let’s build forward better.