Five Science Policy Lessons from Five Years Volunteering with the CSPC

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Peter Serles

University of Toronto

Ph.D. Candidate & Vanier Scholar of Mechanical Engineering

Canadian Science Policy Center

Senior Volunteer & Former Editorial Chair

It’s always interested me how science translates into real impacts on the public. When I started grad school, I wanted to make sure I could go beyond just the research and somehow help facilitate the influence that science has in the public sphere. It was somewhat serendipitous that I came across the Canadian Science Policy Centre while Googling about conferences I could help organize, and once I started as a volunteer, I was immediately hooked with the high calibre and widespread impact of the conference. During the past five years of helping to organize the CSPC conferences and centre activities, we’ve seen an enormous variety of panels and speakers, reconfigured everything into a virtual conference, launched The Canadian Science Policy Magazine, and witnessed in real-time how science policy became the focus of the public’s daily news. I’ve learned a lot from these experiences, but there are five key lessons that I’d highlight which have become integral in my approach to fruitful science, communication, and collaboration.

Science is inherently human

One of the most compelling arguments I’ve heard for the physical sciences is that if the world were to start again, the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology would still be present and would be discovered to be the same, regardless of who re-discovers them or when. However, a crucial piece of this argument is that our human structures still need to lead us there, and even science is not immune to our societal structures, biases, and perceptions. The book Shaping Science: Organizations, Decisions, and Culture on NASA’s Teams by Janet Vertesi discusses this topic well, showing how the knowledge we produce is inherently tied to our organizational structures and decision-making approaches. It’s therefore no surprise that distinguished researchers obtain more grants and publish in higher impact journals. At the end of the day, science will always be inherently human, and we need to be acutely aware of this to avoid its pitfalls.

This understanding can also carry beneficial implications. In 2019 I heard a talk by Duncan Wardle, the former Head of Creativity at Disney, who asked the audience “When do you have your best ideas?” Around the room, answers varied from “driving to work” to “in the shower” to “walking the dog” but, as Duncan sharply pointed out, not a single person said “at work at my desk”. He continued that there is a time to have creative ideas and a time to act on those ideas, but they are rarely going to overlap. By understanding this and creating time for each activity separately, we can thereby leverage our unavoidable human traits to achieve our best results. Science will always be human, and an awareness of this is crucial to capitalize on its opportunities.

Fundamental research forms the essential basis

The architecture of scientific advances always amazes me. My own research of nano-3D printing uses a principle that was predicted in 1931, was experimentally realized in the 1980’s, became commercially viable in the late 2000’s, and only now is beginning to reach application scales. The amount of critical fundamental research that is required to bring a technology to maturity is astounding, and yet in the elegance of modern technologies, we often forget the many people and hours that are required to develop each of the scientific building blocks.

In 2019, I attended a talk by Donna Strickland where someone asked if she’d known the astounding impact that her Nobel Prize winning research would have while she was working on it. She said that at the time, there were ideas of what chirped pulse laser amplification could accomplish, but she hadn’t dreamed that it would have impacts from laser eye surgery to additive manufacturing. By just setting the foundation with her fundamental research, Dr. Strickland enabled dozens of industries that were not even conceived of at the time and will likely enable many more we’ve yet to consider. However, Canada ranks second-last in the G7 in terms of R&D budgets at only 1.6% of our GDP compared to the G7 average of 2.4% (Worldbank). Despite the Naylor Report highlighting the issue in 2017, the discrepancy has only grown between the United States NIH budget of US$45 billion and Canada’s CIHR budget of US$1.05 billion in 2022, marking a 475% difference in per-capita health research spending (up from 330% in 2017). This is an enormous concern for the future of Canada as a scientific entity and we must make a conscious effort to regain our footing on the global stage. It is essential that we don’t only think about the fundamentals when they’re awarded global prizes like Dr. Strickland, but instead diligently invest in this essential basis to remain a leader in research and innovation.

Science falters without communication

One of the key pieces of science policy is being able to communicate your ideas to non-specialists to bridge the gap between the highly technical details and the actual implementation. As scientists, we’re taught to support all of our findings with meticulous detail to ensure it’s truly representative. So, it becomes a fully separate skillset to filter through the details and distill your conclusions into a few succinct messages that can be understood by the wider public. A favourite quote of mine is “people are convinced not by complexity but by conviction” and to me, this forms the crux of effective science communication.

While this skill may seem unique to scientists in public-facing roles, it is also crucial in effective transdisciplinary collaborations. To tackle the biggest problems in research, Canada has launched the Tri-council Interdisciplinary Peer-Review Committee in 2021, the Collaborative Health Research Projects in 2022, and several other initiatives aimed at transcending disciplinary silos. Addressing contemporary research problems requires scientists across disciplines to work together, but the unique lexicon and niche expertise from each field creates an enormous barrier to collaboration. However, it is the same skillset to distill your research findings into key details for the public that enables you to communicate essential technical details across disciplinary boundaries. In learning how to be a better science communicator, I’ve become a better scientist, and as society moves into research of increasing transdisciplinary complexity, it will only become more apparent how integral effective communication is to good science.

The next generation’s seat at the table is critical

With the rapid pace of technological advancement, it is no longer only extensive experience in the field that makes someone highly qualified, but also the ability to rapidly adjust to and adopt new ideas. On top of this, those with the foresight for long-term impacts and their implications are essential to planning for a sustainable and equitable future. It is for these reasons that the next generation is being centrally included in many initiatives, a notable example being the Chief Science Advisor’s Youth Council which was formed to consult with prominent thinkers of the next generation in identifying and solving pressing issues facing the Canadian science community.

The inclusion of the next generation is also critical for long-term training and sustainability across every sector. Baby boomers are increasingly putting off retirement and the population of people 55 or older in the workforce has nearly doubled since 2000 (U.S. Bureau of Labour and Statistics). This has created a deficit in advancement and training opportunities for the younger generation which, upon the eventual retirement of the older population, will leave critical gaps in the technical skills of the future workforce. It therefore becomes a dual-purpose commitment to include the next generation – to incorporate the agility and foresight in facilitating new ideas and in developing highly qualified personnel to ensure long-term sustainability even after the current technical experts retire.

Agile adaptation and risk are the only ways forward

I recently heard of a prominent professor that I’ve collaborated with who informed his students that they had a month to wrap up any work which focused on this specific topic and find a new area of focus. As a student in that lab, it would be jarring to fully pivot your research halfway through your degree and to gain a new area of expertise. But the professor, who’s a CRC and world leader in their field, explained that the technology they were working on wasn’t going to make it to maturity. It would be better for the students to break into a new cutting-edge field than to become a leader in a failing technology. 

Having the foresight to make this decision is what makes this professor particularly distinguished as it stems from a remarkable understanding of the field and an ear to the ground. Globally in 2020, 60% more people per capita were doing research and R&D budgets were 29% higher than they were in 2000 (Worldbank/UNESCO). Modern research is more competitive than ever, and in order to remain on the cutting edge, we need to make it the norm, not the exception, to be risk-tolerant, agile, and adopt new fields. Activities like the New Frontiers in Research Fund from the CRCC effectively promote high-risk ventures and it will be those who can tolerate this risk that will be most heavily rewarded.

All of these lessons have been learned from prominent speakers, mentors, and experiences throughout my last five years in the science policy space. As Mark Twain once said, “I’ve never let my schooling interfere with my education” and I do believe that the skills I’ve acquired through volunteering with the CSPC are as, if not more, valuable than those from the classroom. If I can leave other early career researchers with one piece of advice, it’s to get involved beyond your research with something like the CSPC. In our modern and multifaceted society, being good at research is only one piece of being a good scientist.