Intersections Between Next Generation Researchers and Science Policy in Canada – Past, Present and Future

Published On: November 2021Categories: 2021 Magazine, Canadian Science Policy Magazine, Next Generation
The headshots of 9 young adults scattered across a red background with the title: Intersections Between Next Generation Researchers and Science Policy in Canada- Past, Present and Future

Authors: Sivani Baskaran1, Dhanyasri Maddiboina1, Jina Kum1, Sarah Laframboise2,9, Paalini Sathiyaseelan3,6, Madison Rilling4, Farah Qaiser1,4,5, Anh-Khoi Trinh6, Shawn McGuirk6,7,8


  1. Toronto Science Policy Network
  2. Ottawa Science Policy Network
  3. Science Policy in Health Environment Research and Ethics
  4. Canada’s Chief Science Advisor’s Youth Council 
  5. Evidence for Democracy

6. Science & Policy Exchange
7. Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
8. Association Francophone Pour le Savoir
9. Canadian Science Policy Centre

Over the past year, we have seen firsthand how science can inform policy. Although often less visible, the impact of policy on science is just as important. As the dialogue between science and policy is critical to both evidence- and stakeholder-informed decisions, scientists and researchers are becoming increasingly engaged with the science-policy interface. In particular, grassroots organizations led by next generation researchers (NGRs) including, but not limited to, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and research professionals are continuing to build opportunities for the next generation of scientists to engage in science policy. Many are active participants of the 2021 Canadian Science Policy Conference, as volunteers, panel organizers, or speakers. 

In fact, the founding of the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) in 2009 by Mehrdad Hariri, then a postdoctoral fellow at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, was a landmark moment, and this has since provided a platform for professionals at all levels to participate in science policy discussions. Over the years, CSPC has become a hub for leading science and innovation policy discussions, while promoting diverse partnerships and interconnection of stakeholders. CSPC is now a significant capacity builder for science policy and has opened a door for NGR to get into science policy fields.

As a result, many young scientists were inspired to engage in science policy. Soon after, the NGR-led non-profit Science & Policy Exchange (SPE) was established in 2010 [1], by students at McGill University, to bring the student voice into science policy discussions. Frustrations at the time also sparked a watershed movement in the history of Canadian science policy: in 2012, scientists came together to advocate for science through the Death of Evidence rallies [2] which later marked the beginnings of the non-profit Evidence for Democracy (E4D), co-founded by Katie Gibbs, during her final year of graduate school, and Scott Findlay. 

For a decade, organizations like CSPC, SPE, and E4D served as a support network for individuals and groups within the Canadian science policy world. The mobilization and transfer of knowledge of these groups through workshops and mentorship programs were key in the blossoming of the science policy community in Canada. In particular, graduate students and other NGRs felt more compelled to explore these spaces and get involved. Inspired by these organizations, the Toronto Science Policy Network (TSPN) was founded in 2018 by a group of graduate students at the University of Toronto as a space for researchers and members of the community to learn about and engage in science policy [3]. This further paved the way for NGR-run policy groups across Canada. In this past year alone, we have seen immense interest in science policy amongst graduate students, with the formation of science policy student groups at the University of Ottawa (Ottawa Science Policy Network) and Ryerson University (Ryerson Science Policy Network), as well as a new NGR-led non-profit in Vancouver, called the Science Policy in Health Environment Research and Ethics (SP.HERE) Society.

These science policy groups serve an understated purpose — to provide access to knowledge and training related to science policy, politics, and diplomacy for the next generation of scientists in Canada. In particular, these groups have become a major avenue for introducing the field and bringing attention to careers at the interface of science and policy. They host events and science policy networking opportunities, which are a key resource for NGRs to become acquainted with this sphere of diverse career pathways and to obtain training resources for such a transition from their academic training. 

Despite there being only a few NGR-led science policy groups in Canada, they have punched above their weight and had a tremendous impact on the science policy landscape. For example, SPE led the Students4theReport campaign in 2017 and went on to conduct a nation-wide survey on the perspectives of next generation researchers on federal research funding [4], producing multiple reports with the results [5]. In a similar vein, during the early days of the pandemic, TSPN conducted a survey of graduate students in Canada to understand the early impacts of COVID-19 on graduate students. Both groups have also participated in multiple federal budget consultations [6]. 

NGR-led science policy groups are also common collaborators; by pooling their talents and resources, they have successfully co-hosted panels, co-written numerous op-eds, and delivered campaigns, including Vote Science which informed Canadians and advocated for the importance of science during the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. [7] 

Unfortunately, since the majority of these groups are run entirely by the will and passion of their volunteer members, the consistency of their activities and outreach efforts can vary, and their long-term sustainability is not assured. The development of a robust Canadian science policy ecosystem, with multiple entry points for young scientists, requires concerted and dedicated governmental funding and support. This in turn can help build a robust and collaborative ecosystem, allowing university-based science policy groups to flourish too. It is also important for research institutions and organizations to value the contributions and impacts NGRs are making in the Canadian science policy landscape. Most NGRs join these movements and groups because they have a passion for science and the positive impacts it can have, and has had, on society. They also take initiative because of their curiosity and desire to understand the intersections of the science policy interface. In many cases, they create opportunities for themselves, where there are otherwise very few. 

That said, there are a handful of valuable programs that provide opportunities for NGRs to bridge from research to working within the science policy machinery of Canada. Examples include the Government of Canada Recruitment of Policy Leaders program, Natural Resources Canada’s Policy Analyst Recruitment and Development program, and Mitacs’ Canadian Science Policy Fellowship. Unfortunately, these programs are limited in their eligibility and capacity and, therefore, can only provide bridges for a small fraction of those who seek careers at the intersection of science and policy. These programs are also limited in scope, as most focus on the integration of PhD graduates into the federal government — more opportunities are needed for graduates with master’s degrees and within provincial and municipal governments, as well as in the non-profit and private sectors.

Additionally, in recent years, some institutions have started introducing youth councils and advisory bodies into their ranks. In 2014, Québec’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Rémi Quirion, established a student researcher and postdoctoral advisory committee, the Comité intersectoriel étudiant (CIE) des Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ, the provincial research funding agencies). [8] As a statutory committee of the FRQ, the CIÉ plays an advisory role to both the Chief Scientist and the FRQ’s three board of directors. Intrinsically involved with research funding, the CIÉ has been a model of success of student involvement in governance on the policy for science front. More recently, Dr. Mona Nemer established an inaugural Chief Science Advisor’s Youth Council (CSA-YC) [9], consisting of 20 youth from across the country, spanning different disciplines and career stages. Remarkably, at the time of applications, over 1,000 youth applied to join the CSA-YC, demonstrating the strong interest among the next generation of scientists to explore the field of science policy. [10] Other examples of youth councils and advisory bodies include the CIHR Institute of Human Development Child and Youth Health’s youth advisory council [11], the Environment and Climate Change Youth Council [12], and the Comité interordres de la relève étudiante of Québec’s Conseil supérieur de l’éducation. [13]

Collectively, the rise of new science policy and advisory groups is a testament to the increasing traction of the science policy community in Canada. At the intersection of all these groups, there is a richness of experience and expertise in the different approaches for integrating new talent and perspectives into the science policy world. This momentum must be sustained and supported, if capacity building for science policy is to continue in Canada.

To do so, we are establishing a new collective support network, named SciPolCanada, which will be a Slack-based platform aiming to serve as an open, inclusive, and centralized channel for any individual or group in Canada to get connected with the broader science policy community. The platform is supported by a large number of NGR-led science policy groups, societies and non-profits nationwide. Importantly, this platform can provide support and resources to the increasing number of engaged researchers and science policy groups across Canada.

By creating a virtual platform for NGRs to engage in science policy, we are seeking to make joining, forming, and participating in NGR-led Canadian science policy groups more accessible. We want to continue the momentum of NGR groups by fostering collaborations between the different groups, sharing resources and experiences, and connecting individuals who may be interested in starting their own group. Notably, to the best of our knowledge, there are no active science policy groups in the maritime provinces and in northern and central Canada.

The importance and impacts of science to society is far-reaching. We are now face-to-face with the realities of a pandemic, climate change, and widespread misinformation. NGRs are taking note and are becoming increasingly interested in the intersections of science and policy, going so far as to start their own organizations and lead campaigns. Our society looks towards science and the use of evidence-informed policies, to help guide us out of these crises. Therefore, we also need to ensure that we have trained scientists working with policy makers, and working as policy makers, to develop evidence-informed decisions for Canada. It is our hope that SciPolCanada can be a bridge towards this goal, for everyone living in Canada.