From students to stakeholders: The rise of youth engagement in science policy


Julia Messina-Pacheco

Canada's Chief Science Advisor's Youth Council


Harsh Sharma

Canada's Chief Science Advisor's Youth Council


Kevin Kasa

Canada's Chief Science Advisor's Youth Council


Sarah Laframboise

Canada's Chief Science Advisor's Youth Council


Kaela O’Connor

Canada's Chief Science Advisor's Youth Council


Chloé Currie

Canada's Chief Science Advisor's Youth Council


Disclaimer: The French version of this editorial has been auto-translated and has not been approved by the author.

Science doesn’t just inform decisions; it fuels them, and it’s the synergy of experience and innovation across generations that powers our dynamic policy landscape. By involving youth in the initial stages of policy formulation, we unlock the potential for their contributions to exert a significant and lasting influence on the ultimate direction and impact of policies.

Canada’s youth hold the keys to tomorrow’s innovation, making their active participation in shaping science policy discussions an unparalleled force for progress. Notably, the World Youth Report on “Youth and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” prepared by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) in 2018, acknowledged the critical role youth has in the implementation of sustainable development as they possess distinct skills, especially in information and communication technologies, and offer fresh perspectives on various issues[1]. Leveraging their perspectives, energy, and innovative spirit is essential as Canada navigates the complex science and innovation landscape. As members of Canada’s Chief Science Advisor’s Youth Council (CSA-YC) we have a unique platform to engage with Dr. Mona Nemer, the CSA, representing diverse backgrounds and experiences. Our Vision for Science: Perspectives from the Chief Science Advisor of Canada’s Youth Council [2] provides recommendations advocating for science’s central role in decision-making.

Additionally, several other youth councils also exist adjacent to government and science organizations, departments and offices. For example, the Prime Minister’s Youth Council[3] successfully provides a platform for youth across Canada to raise issues faced by their communities. Similar programs exist at the provincial levels as well, such as Alberta’s Minister’s Youth Council[4] and the Intersectoral Student Committee (CIE)[5] of the Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ).

There is significant value to engaging youth in science policy. We have highlighted three effective strategies for encouraging youth participation in science policy discussions:

1. Outreach and engagement programs 

Youth are the hands-on-the-ground of science, research, and training. Several successful programs exist that aim to bridge the gap between youth, policymakers, and scientists. For example, the Mitacs Science Policy Fellowship[6] was a flagship program, based on similar programs offered in other countries, that uniquely offered 12-month fellowships in Science Policy. However, this program is “on hold until further notice” and leaves a gap for PhD graduates wanting to enter the science policy landscape. Other more specific fellowships exist for government departments, such as Natural Resources Canada’s Policy Analyst Recruitment and Development Program,[7] or the Recruitment of Policy Leaders [8] Campaign.

It is difficult to make the jump from an educational training in science to a career in policy work and while these programs try to bridge this gap, there are limitations. For example, these programs are often limited to PhD graduates and typically require applicants to be physically located in Ottawa. Additionally, these programs are often not advertised or promoted directly to students.

2. Education and awareness campaigns

Educational and awareness campaigns, which bridge the gap between scientific understanding and public engagement, have a strong appeal among younger audiences. Recognizing this growing interest, youth-oriented social groups such as the Ottawa Science Policy Network (OSPN),[9] Toronto Science Policy Network (TSPN),[10] and Science & Policy Exchange (SPE)[11] have emerged. These organizations were born from a collective desire among young people to deepen their knowledge of science policy and develop their own training programs. Actively involved in promoting awareness and education about the intersection of science and policy in Canada, these initiatives have made commendable strides. However, it’s important to note that their influence is somewhat limited by geographic constraints, primarily serving youths in specific areas.

The Canadian Science Policy Conference, renowned as the largest assembly of the Canadian science policy community, stands as a central nexus for inspiring transformation. Its significance lies not just in its scale but also in its unwavering commitment to fostering a dynamic atmosphere that seamlessly incorporates the perspectives of the younger generation into these vital discussions. These values are also exemplified by events like the “Cafés” hosted by SPE, initiatives crafted by and for young voices in the field. These gatherings not only bring experts and the public together to explore critical science and policy topics but also provide a unique and engaging forum for young minds. They enable students and early career researchers to directly engage with experts, fostering informed decision-making in areas like public health, environmental sustainability, and technology regulation. By organizing these events, organizations like CSPC and SPE underline the impact of open discourse in shaping policies rooted in scientific rigor and responsive to public needs and concerns.

Virtual events have proven to be just as effective as their physical counterparts in engaging youth in science policy discussions. Organizations like TSPN and OSPN are leveraging online platforms to host workshops such as “Science Policy 101,” shedding light on the impact of science on government decision-making and policy formulation. Adding to these efforts, Evidence for Democracy has initiated online training aimed at ensuring that the research community is well equipped to understand and engage in the policy process, and to advocate for science and evidence in our democracy with confidence. This initiative is particularly vital as it offers young minds across Canada the opportunity to gain comprehensive exposure to science policy. Podcasts like SPE Talks have further enhanced this interactive learning platform, making it accessible to anyone with an internet connection. The ease of participating from any location with internet access has led to increased involvement from young individuals.

3. Youth-friendly platforms for policy dialogue 

Large governmental institutions, especially at the federal or regional levels, can often be imposing or bureaucratic in nature, which can be a barrier for youth engagement in science policy. These institutions typically have complex hierarchies, follow formal procedures, and employ technical jargon. For young individuals who may not be familiar with these structures or have limited experience in dealing with government affairs, navigating such systems can be daunting.  Creating youth-centric platforms for discussion and learning can go a long way in successfully engaging youth in science policy. Platforms focused on the voices and experiences of youth are less intimidating for those new to the field, and provide a space for youth of all experiences and expertise to talk about issues important to them.

X (formerly Twitter) serves as a vital platform for science policy discussions, fostering awareness, interest, and event promotion. While not exclusive to youth, it offers a user-friendly and accessible avenue for their involvement. Many of us discovered science policy and the CSA-YC opportunity through X, personally benefiting from its value. Notably, numerous key organizations and leaders in the science policy field, including the CSA, SPE, TSPN, OSPN, SOS & CSPC, actively utilize X, underscoring its significance in this space.

Another example of a youth-friendly platform is the SciPol Canada Slack channel,[12] which is focused on promoting discussions around science policy amongst Canadian youths. While X provides an open forum for youth to engage in science policy, the creation of the SciPol Canada Slack channel succeeds in establishing a smaller, more focused community. Here, those already interested in and engaged in science policy can make connections, further discussions and generate ideas together.

While these and other initiatives have served an important role in mobilizing and integrating youth voices in science policy, the current landscape of opportunities is far from sufficient. There are still some challenges and criticisms of youth involvement that must be acknowledged and addressed to understand the best ways for youth to be involved in science policy. Specific challenges include intergenerational differences in beliefs, culture, or interests and the possible unequal power relationship and disregard for youth opinions.

To address these challenges successfully, it’s crucial to create inclusive, accessible, and youth-friendly spaces for policy discussions while fostering a sense of empowerment and meaningful impact among young participants. The inaugural CSA-YC report offers actionable recommendations, such as increased science funding, expanded K-12 science education, addressing systemic barriers, and embedding youth councils within organizations. To ensure meaningful collaboration, joint task forces comprising both youth and experienced stakeholders should be established, spanning academia, government, industries, and innovation clusters.

The engagement of youth in science policy is not just a matter of participation; it is a pathway to building trust in the foundations of science and its integration into policy-making. Leveraging the energy, innovation, and distinctive perspectives of younger generations can forge a more robust and inclusive science policy landscape. The challenges are clear, from knowledge gaps to generational differences, but the potential benefits are immense. Initiatives like the CSA-YC, youth-focused organizations, and online platforms offer promising avenues to address these challenges and amplify youth voices in the policy discourse. By doing so, we not only enrich the quality of policy discussions but also ensure that science remains at the forefront of decision-making, fostering a collaborative environment where trust in science flourishes.