Scientific evidence and policy making

Evidence based information to inform policy

In November of 2012, I organized a PANEL at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Calgary.  We invited experts from Canada, the US and the UK (all with experience navigating the murky waters between science and government) to participate on the panel to discuss the issue:

If non-science factors drive some of the issues, how, if and when is scientific knowledge and expertise accessed to inform evidence-based policy making?

Well, first off, it appears that Canada may be coming up short. This country is a bubbling kettle of political hot water right now. Some argue that the gap between science and government is widening.  There are allegations that the federal government is ‘muzzling its science’. A ‘Death of Evidence’ movement even arose out of the AAAS meeting in Vancouver in 2012.

The relationship between science and government in Canada

It is important to emphasize that Canada has used some models to navigate the space between science and government.  And these models have worked well to varying degrees. Many were modeled after initiatives in the UK.  The problem is that they have long been abandoned.  Canada currently has something called the Science Technology Innovation Council (STIC) which reports to the Junior Minister of Science.  But, apparently, the advice and information that the organization offers up is ‘secret.’

But ‘secret’ just doesn’t ‘cut it’. The Jenkins Report (Innovation Canada: A Call to Action, 2011) states that while Canada excels in research it lags behind much of the rest of the developed world in commercializing innovation. One of the contributing factors that the Report alludes to is the lack of a broad, transparent connection between science and government.

innovation deficit

So, what came out of the CSPC 2012 panel discussion?

1) There are gaps:

  • Decision makers need the best, most reliable and timely scientific advice and information (evidence) in order to formulate sound policy
  • Sources of evidence need to be unbiased and independent
  • And scientific literacy in the public must be addressed in some way (to mitigate some of the myths and misinformation that circulates)

2) Good governance required:

  • There appears to be an inherent lack of understanding of cultural gaps between scientific and political spheres – that’s a problem.
  • This leads to questions around the Who? What? How? When? of mobilizing the evidence. It is important to clarify relationships and roles in terms of information exchange.
  • What models should we use? Frameworks?

Which leads one to ask…

Mobilizing Evidence: what has been done to date?

From the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA (1975) to present day, there have been a number of models for knowledge/expertise that have been initiated. The extension model is an old but successful model with a reported good return on investment with these kinds of initiatives working well in agricultural based colleges.  They quite often effectively connect researchers and plant breeders to producers. But the problem today is that we are not only dealing with ‘farmer knowledge needs’ here – – – the stakeholder circle has broadened a great deal and this makes things much more complex.

There have been (and are) a number of national and international efforts to summarize, assess and communicate evidence: International Food Safety Network (iFSN), Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee (CBAC), Nuffield Council on Bioethics, US National Research Council, Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, Biosafety Clearing House (BCH) – Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.  Some initiatives are great at compiling knowledge but not as great at interpreting that knowledge, let alone ensuring that the information gets where it needs to go. Others – like those governed by FAO, WHO and the OECD – although good, can be very slowwwww and ponderous.

There are great examples of formal science-government programs currently in place; ones that are designed to actually push the evidence along to where it needs to be.  Programs in the US such as the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships and the Jefferson Science Fellowships appear to be working quite well.  In the UK the government has positions called Chief Scientific Advisors that work to provide evidence to ministers that helps them make reasonable decisions on the basis of real evidence.

All of these are good examples where, at worst, knowledge is gathered and synthesized and where, at best, ‘evidence’ is mobilized into realms where key social and economic decisions are made.  

What models can and should we adapt and use in Canada? Can we do more? Can we do better? – – – – Related posts: Digging into the ‘Death of Evidence’

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