The pandemic, the antibiotic crisis, and the importance of science and Parliament to meet

a banner with the title "The pandemic, the antibiotic crisis, and the importance of science and Parliament to meet" alongside the headshot of a middle eastern man


Omar El-Halfawy

University of Regina

Assistant Professor, Biochemistry

Chemogenomics and Antimicrobial Research

Canada Research Chair

Sound research should influence policymaking at all levels. However, connections between the scientific community at large and politicians are not routinely established. The Science Meets Parliament Program aims to build bridges between both enterprises. Such bridges would lead to a more robust outcome-driven research enterprise and more effective evidence-based policies, which should work synergistically and translate discoveries into a positive impact for the benefit of Canadians. The rapid scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic provides a clear example of such synergy. Similar collaborations and interactions are needed to address other emerging and pressing problems affecting our society, such as antimicrobial resistance, climate change, water and energy crises, and cybersecurity. 

Science Meets Parliament: The call

At the height of the pandemic, the call for the second round of Science Meets Parliament (SMP), open to Tier 2 Canada Research Chairs and Indigenous Scholars, organized by the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) and the office of the Chief Science Advisor of Canada, was announced. The initiative aims to connect scientists and parliamentarians. With very few notable and localized exceptions, no other programs in Canada share the same goal. Hence, the SMP program addresses this void with the following objectives: strengthening the connections between Canada’s scientific and political communities, enabling a two-way dialogue, and promoting mutual understanding by helping scientists become familiar with policymaking and parliamentarians to explore using scientific evidence in policymaking.  

As a scientist studying antimicrobial resistance (AMR) to find solutions to the antibiotic crisis, and given the importance of dialogue between scientists and policymakers, among others, to address this problem, I immediately applied to SMP. I was thrilled to be invited to the program and join a diverse group of scientists (SMP delegates) from across Canada and from a wide range of scientific disciplines (natural and health sciences, biomedicine, engineering, arts, and humanities). And being an immigrant and a first-generation Canadian citizen, the ability to visit the Parliament and observe its inner workings was an excellent opportunity for me.

The pandemic and AMR

Antibiotics are arguably the cornerstone of modern medicine as they not only fight infections but also enable medical procedures, including all surgeries, and advances, such as cancer treatments. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) already costs the health sector $1.4B nationally, reduces the GDP by $2B yearly, and is predicted to claim 400,000 Canadian lives by 20501. If not adequately addressed, a pandemic driven by antimicrobial resistance would dwarf the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of morbidity, mortality, and economic toll. The antibiotic crisis is a multifaceted problem that includes an innovation gap in the discovery pipeline, misuse of currently available drugs, and lack of incentive to invest in antibiotic development due to regulatory barriers and poor market economics2. As such, we need a multi-pronged approach to address this crisis with the involvement of multiple stakeholders, including scientists, healthcare professionals, and policymakers. When COVID-19 hit, scientists with diverse expertise, public health and healthcare professionals, policymakers, and politicians, among others, were mobilized and collaborated to respond to the pandemic. Unlike the COVID response, which was rushed due to the element of surprise associated with the pandemic, AMR is already an existing problem, and a post-antibiotic era is looming if we do not act appropriately. Strong connections between the different stakeholders are crucial to avert a full-blown public health crisis related to AMR.  

Science Meets Parliament: The program

What I thought would be a day on the Hill turned out to be a comprehensive program that extended over a year of frequent virtual training and networking sessions that culminated with a full day at the Institute on Governance in Ottawa. These sessions covered areas at the interface between science and policy in preparation for our day on the Hill. Topics included science policy and communication, policymaking, evidence-based decision-making, Parliament operations, and EDI in Science and Policy. We met Dr. Mona Nemer (the Chief Science Advisor), current and former parliamentarians, science journalists, bureaucrats, science policy analysts, presidents of Tri-council funding agencies, and international partners who organized similar programs in Spain and Australia.

In Ottawa, alongside other SMP delegates, I attended networking events with Dr. Nemer, other MPs across the political spectrum, senators, and key stakeholders, including representation from local universities and funding agencies such as Genome Canada. We attended Question Period at the House of Commons and had the opportunity to join committee meetings running that day. I attended a meeting of the HoC Standing Committee on Industry and Technology. The SMP organizing committee planned individual one-on-one meetings for each delegate with MPs and/or senators, a level of organization and coordination that is no small feat. Admittedly, I was impressed with the participation of representatives from all major Federal political parties in the program. I had one-on-one meetings with MPs Michael Kram (representing the Regina-Wascana riding where the University of Regina is located) and Damien Kurek (the MP of Battle River—Crowfoot riding in Alberta). In both meetings, I discussed my group’s work to tackle antibiotic resistance and how my research program can contribute to solving this critical health problem while training highly qualified personnel that can push Saskatchewan and Canada’s academic, biotech, and industry sectors as the next generation of Canadian scientists. In return, I learned about the MP’s multiple roles and the varying nature of their work, from addressing constituency’s concerns to serving on committees and working on legislation. We discussed how much they rely on science in their daily work and ways scientists can support politicians in policymaking. We discussed how research at universities can create new job opportunities and influence the economy and how the local communities and universities can interact.


Key lessons
Indeed, SMP was an eye-opening experience that I bring back to my trainees, program, and university. The lessons I learned are too many to recount in a few lines, but I will summarize some of the highlights below.  

Science communication matters

Even though I followed politics from afar, this program helped me better understand Parliament procedures. I developed a deeper appreciation of MPs’ work and a better understanding of politicians’ pressures and driving forces. Such knowledge enables better scientific communication with policymakers. With the dynamic nature of their work and the numerous stakeholders and lobbyists, scientists should build acquaintance and trust with politicians so that science can make a more meaningful contribution and have open channels to inform decision-making when a crisis hits. I understood the relevance of the is-ought fallacy in the context of science advice and how important it is to stay in one’s lane: the scientist should provide the facts and evidence while leaving policymaking to politicians. This notion may lead to better uptake by politicians and, importantly, maintain public trust in science: facts are absolute, but policies may occasionally be controversial or unpopular. A better formulation of the scientific message was a lesson learned and practiced in this program that enhances science communication with politicians, the general public, and even other academics.

The importance of connecting with politicians

As a scientist, I have always believed that science communication and outreach to the general public bring about positive change in society. However, I never thought to reach out directly to politicians. Attending SMP encouraged the latter interaction, which I now believe should be an integral part of our science outreach efforts. I think more scientists should connect with politicians and hope that more politicians would be open to hearing from scientists. Direct interaction between researchers at a given university and local representatives at every level of government would be an excellent start. Indeed, scientific advice could be the apparent incentive for such outreach. However, demonstrating how research labs operate and how they create temporary work placements for our trainees while preparing them to be better qualified to join the workforce or start their businesses is a valuable outcome in itself. Such information is not as evident to outsiders of the academic enterprise as we academics might think. 

After my trip to Parliament, I invited MPs I connected with to my lab. Recently, MP Kram toured my lab at the University of Regina, saw our state-of-the-art robotic infrastructure in action, learned about our research efforts tackling AMR, and discussed with each trainee their projects. Mr. Kram’s visit was an excellent opportunity to share some science communications lessons with my group members; each student had a chance to interact directly with the MP and hone their scientific pitch. This interaction constitutes the start of an ongoing partnership for the benefit of our community.

Science policy and other career options 

One of the important take-home messages from this program is to orient our trainees to science policy and provide them with additional career options beyond the perceived limited binary academia-industry career choices, especially those presented to biological sciences graduates as the only options. I have seen scientists playing instrumental roles in various policy interfaces. Other career options also exist in science communications, which opens the horizon of potential careers available to university graduates.


Concluding remarks

Engaging politicians in the current status of the antibiotic crisis and our efforts to solve it enables more efficient prevention of an antibiotic apocalypse. The same applies to every sector and emerging problem affecting our communities. Ultimately, scientists and politicians work toward the benefit of Canadians. Science and Parliament need to Meet more often to maximize such benefits. This way, no one is isolated in an Ivory Tower; instead, we collaborate to serve our society, translate knowledge into impactful solutions, and achieve better outcomes together. 

1 When Antibiotics Fail. The Expert Panel on the Potential Socio-Economic Impacts of Antimicrobial Resistance in Canada. (Council of Canadian Academies, Ottawa, ON, 2019).

2 Ardal, C. et al. Antibiotic development – economic, regulatory and societal challenges. Nat Rev Microbiol 18, 267-274 (2020).