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’

“We can’t go back to zero…” Triffid Flax: a year later

Check out this interview of SaskFlax Director Dave Sefton by Shaun Haney of RealAgriculture

“Moving ahead requires the development of low level presence policy in Canada…”  Dave Sefton – Director, SaskFlax


“…if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” Thomas 1928 #technology #perceptions #food #mythmaking

Sara McPhee-Knowles, a brilliant young scholar with the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy discusses expert and citizen/consumer perceptions of risk in a paper published on the Valgen website:…. She outlines the results of in-depth interviews and focus groups exploring public perceptions of risk with respect to biotechnology in food comparing and contrasting expert and lay perspectives. McPhee-Knowles results generated two dichotomies… “…some see biotechnology as a novel technology while others see it in its historical, scientific context (e.g. similar to using yeast yet more advanced)” (page 3). According to McPhee-Knowles, “…risk perception theory and practice has a potential impact on citizen behaviours and by extension on government decisions. Regulators inside government are working in a constrained world where public risk perceptions can exacerbate the likelihood of making Type I or Type II errors (i.e. approving an unsafe product or rejecting a safe product)…”

Through this paper, McPhee-Knowles introduced me to a new theory. The Thomas Thoerem states that “…if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas, 1928 as cited in Merton, 1995: 380). Merton (1957, 1995)). This particular theory, in the context of McPhee-Knowles’ paper, reminded me of and prompted me to re-visit a book review I wrote a year or two back for the journal /Science and Public Policy.

In /The Myths of Technology: Innovation and Inequality/, Burnett, Senker and Walker edit and present a piece of literature on complex myths that develop around technology in the fields of ICT, nature, society and, relevant in this context, biotechnology. They explore the mythic ideas and ideals that shape society’s perceptions and expectations of technology. The editors assert that the “…boundaries between myth and knowledge are at times slippery…” (1). This edited edition offers Contributions from wide disciplinary perspectives and examine the boundaries between subjects and objects of technologies. “…[M]yths appear in all systems of thought serving civilizations and ordinary people in everyday life…” (4); they “offer characterizations and explanations of human life…” (6). This collection groups myths around two polarized perspectives of technology and attempts to offer a balanced perspective between these two:

1. technology is the answer to all of our social, economic and political problems
2. technology will be the downfall of millions and “…is the harbinger of the destruction of civilization…” (11)

The final section (Part III), in particular, examines myths in nature, society and biotechnologies. For example, Davis and Flowers explore myth and biotechnology in the context of the HIV epidemic. The expectations of a biotechnical fix are viewed as a kind of techno-myth where the promise of cure may be worse than the disease itself. Although biomedical solutions for treatment are essential for self-care practices, the authors suggest that it brings further technical uncertainties and perils. Treatments can be undermined by a myriad of social and structural constraints such as the economics of drug development, unequal global access to such treatments and issues of citizenship and access. In particular, techno-optimistic promise of treatment and cure may lead to complacency in terms of safe sex practice on the part of those at risk. This could lead to wider spread of infection (Type I/II error?). Senker and Chataway address the controversies associated with agricultural biotechnology where proponents (multinationals) and critics (NGOs) “…accuse each other of promoting myths and denying facts…” (171). Myths examined here span the continuum from anti-GM ‘frankenfoods’ to broad motherhood statements made by industry advocates with promises to ‘feed the world’. To alleviate the dichotomous tension, Senker and Chataway offer up a key institutional solution in the form of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). The primary role of such intermediary institutions is to provide a ‘middle ground’ for discourse and practice and to balance the diverging interests of technology advocates and technological cynics to genuinely improve food availability (PPPs to manage Type I/II errors?). With that, I return to the Thomas Thoerem:

“…if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas, 1928 as cited in Merton, 1995: 380). Merton (1957, 1995)).

Is mythmaking the precursor to defining situations as ‘real’ or is in fact an intermediary between definition and perceived consequences? 

More developments on the EU Biotech Policy

“…Importing biotech crops for feed and food will continue to be regulated as now. Member states would not be allowed to prohibit the import and/or the marketing of authorized biotech products. The current list of authorized biotech crops for feed and food use includes one sugar beet, three soybeans, three rapeseeds, six cotton and 17 corn products. What would change is that once a new biotech crop is authorized for cultivation, member states would be able to ban it across all or part of their country for socioeconomic, ethical and moral reasons other than those included in the health and environmental risk assessment of the EU.”

EU Biotech Policy Debate Continues
Ross Korves
July 23, 2010

“In 2009 the EU grew 234,000 acres of the one biotech corn (MON810) authorized in 1998. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), Spain had 187,900 acres of biotech corn, the Czech Republic 16,000 acres, Portugal 12,600 acres, Romania 8,000 acres, Poland 7,400 acres and Slovakia 2,200 acres. Germany and France had previously grown biotech corn. Romania grew 360,000 acres of biotech soybeans in 2006 before joining the EU in 2007. A biotech starch potato, known as ‘Amflora’, was authorized for cultivation and industrial processing in March 2010. Austria, Luxembourg and Hungary have already notified the Commission they will prohibit its cultivation.”

Full article at:…

DG Sanco and LLP Policy Options for the EU

On 7 May 2008, the European Commission delayed a decision on allowing farmers to grow more GM crops, and asked European Food Safety Authority to reconsider its previous review, which it had admitted was inadequate, as it was unable to take indirect and long term impacts into account. This paper represents a follow up from this debate which concluded that the Commission services should work on a technical solution for the issue of LLP of non approved GMOs in feed and foodstuffs before the summer.…