What Does it Mean for Science Communication and Decision-Making?

The CIC recently sent Trent University M.Sc. graduate student Josephine C. Esposto to the virtual 2020 Canadian Science Policy Conference. Esposto sat in on ‘Polarization: What Does it Mean for Science Communication and Decision-Making?’ and offers her take on what she heard.

Canadians have been facing the effects of political polarization for several generations. As panelists pointed out at the 2020 Canadian Science Policy Conference, this polarization is largely the result of economic displacement and income inequalities within various socio-political groups. But with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, many of those disparities are now being accentuated.

Because of this, politicians and their constituents are turning to scientific experts for advice on how to govern and how to fashion public policy.  However, according to Rhonda Moore, practice lead for science and innovation at the Institute on Governance, “The intersection between science and the communication of such findings could do with a bit of humility and patience in order to explain to people how said science is relevant.”

Following up on Moore’s comments, fellow panelist, Preston Manning, founder of the now-defunct Reform Party of Canada, said that the key to winning an election in a polarized society is to win over the ‘mushy’ side of the voter population. That is, those who remain unsure of leaders’ platforms and how they will directly benefit.  Often, these ‘mushy’ voters have lost confidence in political parties and democratic principles, leading to a significant decline in public trust.

Science-based decision-making, he argued, can be a lever for regaining trust, which is critical for the future of democracy. The key to winning over voters, Manning argued, is absolute transparency and open science communication that can be easily translated to the non-scientific communities.  He argued that polarization is reversible, as long as everyone – voters and politicians – get the same scientific information and politicians make decisions based on that information.

Like Manning, I would argue that in many ways, polarization is absolutely manageable, so long as we maintain trust in science and its institutions.  When we as a population trust the power of authority, it’s because we believe it’s the best thing for us.  However, certain hardships can pit segments of society against each other.

Specifically, COVID-19 has tested trust and respect for government for many people. To be plain, they don’t believe the government has effectively managed the pandemic’s health and economic fallout.

So, the question is this: Is polarization manageable if we maintain trust in science and its institutions?  The answer is most definitely!  When a governing party not only uses science experts’ opinions to guide policies around health, but communicates clearly that it is doing so, the public will respond positively and encourage the party to continue to listen to experts.

As Manning said, trying to find common ground is better than trying to prove a point, especially in a democratic government.  Scientists are more than willing to help bridge gaps between research findings and political realities, so long as their judgements are given credence and used to inform policy.  This in turn can help voters understand how and why their livelihoods are being affected and help them regain the trust they once had in policy-makers.

This ‘new’ approach to governing starts with questions around what needs to be done and what incentives we can offer to encourage stronger social cohesion post-pandemic. The answers, I would argue, should be guided by transparency in risk communication, active civic participation in shaping public policies, and equity and sustainability in all sectors.