Science Meets Parliament 2022: Forging new links between scientists and policy makers

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Basil P. Hubbard

University of Toronto

Associate Professor, Pharmacology and Toxicology

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

Importance of science policy

The value of effective domestic science policy is clearer today than at any point in recent history. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada has maintained a relatively low mortality rate of ~1.1% compared to peer and near peer nations such as Mexico (5.6%) in part due to its successful implementation of widespread programs to minimize SARS-CoV-2 exposure, perform contact tracing, rollout vaccines, and invest in pharmaceutical research and development1. However, there is still room for improvement, as other nations such as Australia reported a much lower mortality rate (0.1%)1. In the future, prioritizing excellence in Canadian science policy will be necessary to meet the challenges of emerging viral threats and address issues relating to clean energy, artificial intelligence, gene editing technologies, and space exploration. A key to achieving this goal will be the establishment of a broad and accessible network that connects politicians to scientists.  

The reciprocal nature of science and policy

The Science Meets Parliament (SMP) program provided me with a new perspective on how Canada’s science policy is shaped, and the strengths and weaknesses of the current system. With stimulating lectures on topics ranging from the fundamentals of the Westminister government system to conversations with Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer, and discussions with the Presidents of our major federal research granting agencies (NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR), I developed a comprehensive understanding of the process by which scientific research is presented to government for policy considerations. I also was enlightened on how policy can influence scientific direction. Many of Canada’s successful science policies were discussed throughout the training program. Yet, I also learned that economic support for science in Canada needs to be bolstered. I was shocked to learn that Canada has fallen far behind its OECD partners in regards to gross domestic spending on research and development. For example, Canada spends only ~1.5% of its GDP on research and development, while the United States is spending nearly 3% and Israel is current spending ~5%2. Thus, the program reinforced the idea of reciprocity, and the important role that politicians have in influencing scientific progress in Canada. 

Meetings on the Hill

The highlight of SMP was unquestionably the invitation to meet with Parliamentarians and fellow Canada Research Chairs (CRCs) in Ottawa. I personally had the opportunity to meet with Members of Parliament from Edmonton, Alberta and Scarborough, Ontario, both of whom were genuinely interested in learning about my research, and gracious with their time. Our conversations delved into topics ranging from the academic landscape in Canada, to intellectual property regulations, to shared interests. Moreover, I have never had the opportunity to interact with so many CRCs in so many different fields from across Canada as I did at SMP 2022. I learnt a lot through conversations with my fellow Delegates, and made many new connections. The opportunity to tour Parliamentary buildings, attend question period, and meet with other dignitaries added to the uniqueness of the experience. 

Becoming involved and future perspectives

Moving forward, I hope to continue to interact with Canada’s policy leaders and to hopefully contribute my own expertise to the development of national science policy. My lab focuses on improving tools for gene editing and applying them to the treatment of monogenic diseases such as  cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia, as well as more complex polygenic diseases like cancer. There are many legal and ethical questions in the field that still need to be answered: what genes should we be allowed to edit, and should the genes of unborn children be changed? Canadian politicians will need to work with scientists to establish appropriate laws and policies surrounding these and other matters. With the establishment of a Chief Science Advisor position in 20173, the Canadian government reaffirmed that it recognizes the importance of science to society. The Canadian Science Policy Center (CSPC), which organizes the SMP program, has done a tremendous job of continuing to advocate for stronger ties between scientists and politicians. Ultimately, I believe that programs like Science Meets Parliament will help establish a pipeline for science policy decisions that will result in mutually beneficial policies for both scientists and politicians, and better prepare Canada for scientific and technological challenges that may arise in the future.