World-renowned neuropsychologist Maryse Lassonde­, the Royal Society of Canada’s new president, is determined to promote the culture of science.  

The May 2012 citation for Maryse Lassonde as an Officer of the Order of Canada highlighted her international reputation in advancing knowledge of the brain. Prophetically it also noted that “her outstanding commitment to the scientific and university communities continues today.”

Indeed it has. Since January 2012, the 62-year-old neuropsychologist has been scientific director of Quebec’s granting agency for science and technology, one of the province’s three Fonds de recherche. In 2013-2014 Lassonde was also president of ACFAS, more formally the Association francophone pour le savoir. Then, in November 2015, Lassonde started a two-year term as president of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC), which is composed of three academies for arts, humanities and sciences plus the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. 

Initially on the faculty at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Lassonde retired in 2013 after 25 years at the Université de Montréal, where she held a Canada Research Chair in developmental neuropsychology.

Maryse Lassonde

Maryse Lassonde

What do you think about science culture in Canada today, both in terms of public knowledge about science as well as an appreciation of the role that science has to play? 

One of the missions of the Royal Society of Canada and also the Fonds de recherche du québec is to promote knowledge of science and the recognition of what science can do for the community. I think the best route to promote the culture of science is to ask people what they want to know about.

What can be done concerning public understanding about the limitations of scientific evidence? For example, some teachers’ unions in Ontario are calling for a moratorium on WiFi in schools, arguing that it hasn’t been proven safe. But it’s impossible for science to prove anything safe in every possible circumstance. 

Scientists have to clearly state the limits of our knowledge regarding discoveries that are made and that will be made. I think we need to be truthful. What we also need to do is transfer our knowledge to the public. One of the limitations of the society’s expert panels is that their reports are not being diffused sufficiently. A lot of them take three years to prepare and they should be better known. We’re working on that. 

The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) also produces expert panel reports. Are the Royal Society and the council going to cooperate?

This is our biggest wish. There are representatives of the three sister academies on the CCA board. It would be better if we could work together in a more cooperative way and we’re discussing that with the CCA.  

What do you mean by a more cooperative way?

For instance, you know that it’s not the role of CCA to provide recommendations in its reports, just to describe the state of affairs. But the Royal Society of Canada could provide recommendations.

Are there other opportunities for greater public engagement by the RSC?

My ideal would be to create provincial arms of the Royal Society as we have now in Atlantic Canada where Fellows of the three academies meet and discuss topics that are of relevance to their local government. I would love to have that throughout Canada. Gather the Fellows from the various academies but also the members of the new College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists with its younger members and discuss and provide advice to — it could be municipal government or the provincial government. But use a bottom-up approach and also intersectoral.

You were president of the Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS), which I would call a science advocacy body. 
Yes, that’s true, it is.

Why does Quebec have one and the rest of Canada doesn’t?

It’s not only Quebec; it used to be called the French-Canadian Association for the Advancement of Science and we had on our board representatives from Manitoba, New Brunswick and other provinces. Every time I meet a French-speaking scientist their first talk was at an ACFAS meeting. Today every university and education establishment in Quebec selects one student and all these students come to the ACFAS meeting for an amazing contest called “My Thesis in Three Minutes.” They have to describe their research in ordinary terms and can use only one slide. When you talk about transfer of science and promotion of science to the public, it’s fabulous and much, much fun.

Everyone says that scientific research is becoming more and more global. Should scientific advice become more global too? 

We are part of the new global network of science academies called the IAP, or InterAcademy Partnership. We could learn from other countries, for instance, on how to include women in academies because it’s very, very difficult for women. In the Royal Society of Canada, for instance, we have only 22 percent of women as Fellows. I learned from the Australian experience that the only thing that really worked to include women in academies was to have a sponsor who would take the file from the beginning to the end and who would work on behalf of the candidate.

This interview has been condensed and edited.