Taking the time to connect – reflections on the Canadian Science Meets Parliament program

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Rachel Chang

Dalhousie University

Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair - Atmospheric Science

Talking to others in person is such an integral part of our culture. For so many of us, our face-to-face interactions have been severely limited in the last two years due to the global pandemic. This has isolated us in so many ways and it can be hard to remember what it feels like to exchange ideas with another person, either casually or for a purpose, while responding in real time to the other person’s ideas, reactions, and feelings. 

The work of scientists and politicians are both accountable to society, with the promise of science to improve our lives, and for policies to benefit the people. As such, it is important that both of these groups regularly meet and talk to the public. Scientists are a subset of people that politicians should meet, just as policy-makers are a subset of people with whom scientists should share their work. Despite this, opportunities for scientists to meet with policy-makers are usually limited to formal occasions such as committee meetings, where the interaction can feel adversarial, or times when one party is seeking favour from another (e.g. funding for science, election time). In an ideal world, informal meetings without an agenda where these two groups could learn about the other’s world would occur regularly. However, differences in culture, time frames, and end goals all pose barriers to these two groups communicating more regularly1. To combat this, the Canadian Science Policy Centre2 has worked extensively to build a strong and effective science policy community, bringing together scientists, policy makers, and everyone in between. Their Science Meets Parliament program was one of their efforts, bringing together Tier 2 Canada Research Chairs from across Canada with a diverse demographic representation. The goal of the program was to bring together these researchers in the natural sciences, engineering, health sciences, and social sciences with parliamentarians in a setting where there was no specific agenda beyond learning more about the other party’s work. 

In preparation for these in-person meetings in Ottawa, myself and 42 other participants of the 2021/2022 edition of Science Meets Parliament attended 14 remote training sessions between May 2021 to April 2022 covering basics such as the Westminister Government system, the role of science in policy, and science communications, as well as participating in open conversations with past parliamentarians, bureaucracy leaders, and the leaders of the Tri-Council agencies. Even though I completed all my education, from kindergarten to doctorate, in Canada and consider myself reasonably well-informed on how our country functions, I realized throughout this program that there were severe gaps in my understanding of government, especially regarding the interface between science and policy, even though it implicitly defines my career. These sessions were a build up to our Day on the Hill, where I was privileged to shadow my Member of Parliament Andy Fillmore for part of the day and then to meet with the Honourable Dan Vandal, Minister of Northern Affairs, Minister responsible for Prairies Economic Development Canada and Minister responsible for the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. For the first time in my life, I attended Question Period, witnessing our democracy at work, and then attended the Government Operations and Estimations Committee’s meeting on the National Shipbuilding Strategy, which was of particular interest since Atlantic Canada is so heavily dependent on the ocean-sector. 

What stood out the most from my experience with the Science Meets Parliament program was that direct communication with parliamentarians, especially your MP, is a very effective way to participate in our democratic process. For example, during Question Period, MPs cited their constituents’ emails describing the long wait times they were experiencing for passports. It would have never occurred to me that my small complaint could become a national affair that was worthy of being addressed by the Prime Minister of the country, but my day in Ottawa showed me that anyone’s issue, including scientific concerns, could be brought to a national stage. The program also made me realize the importance of developing relationships with parliamentarians. As a citizen reading media reports on scandal after scandal, it can be easy to be disenfranchised by politicians and wonder about their motivations for joining politics. However, actually talking to my MP in an unstructured environment gave me the opportunity to learn that his trajectory was not exceptionally different from my own, with the main difference being that when he saw a problem with the system, he stepped up, and gave up his career to help make our country better. My respect for parliamentarians increased greatly after this event. I hope that our interactions similarly reminded them that developing scientific evidence often requires months years of hard work, unlike alternative facts, which are a dime a dozen. In an age where anyone can find a platform to expound their ideas into the void of the internet, developing a personal connection and truly talking, listening, and interacting with someone face-to-face is more important than ever. 

1-Saner, Marc, A Map of the Interface Between Science & Policy (January 1, 2007). Staff Papers, Council of Canadian Academies, 2007, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1555769

2- https://sciencepolicy.ca/