Is the role of scientists in public policy changing? And should it?

The CIC recently sent Wilfrid Laurier University biological and chemical sciences PhD student Carolyn Brown to the virtual 2020 Canadian Science Policy Conference. Brown returned with some thoughts about the role of scientists in public policy.

For many decades, scientists in developed countries could receive funding without meaningful engagement outside the lab. But Canadian funding for basic research has been decreasing, prompting questions about whether scientists should also be advocates for their research’s role in public policy. Our budget in R&D is among the lowest in the G8, and each year Canada moves down the list for all countries for gross domestic spending on R&D. With less than half of Canadians considered to be science literate and decreases to funding, many scientists are questioning if they need to do more to promote science.

Many science societies have formed over previous decades in Canada. These societies include scientists with similar specialties, such as physics or ecology, and were originally formed to help members connect and share research. In recent years, these societies have added activities such as engagement with politicians and funding agencies to discuss the importance of basic science or funding priorities for their specialty. They now often provide information to the government and public about the science of a specific topic. This shift from scientists as passive providers of information to actively sharing and promoting results is necessary in this world of decreasing attention spans and competitive funding interests.

What many scientists and societies are debating is if the shift needs to go further, into activist roles. This would mean not just providing scientific information but advocating for specific policies. An illustrative example is climate change: some science societies have members who feel they should be explicitly advocating for certain policies that will reduce carbon emissions. Although these scientists can freely express their opinions to their MPs or other decision-makers, the collective voice of a science society can be more influential.

What I think scientists often forget is that policy is not based solely on scientific information. Although we are often told policy is evidence-based, in actuality it is only evidence-informed. The values of society or the socioeconomic goals of policy-makers are also considered.  The role of scientists is to present specific data, but that data reflects a narrow perspective in the broader public debate. This may include presenting scenarios in which different policies are enacted, each with different risks.

But it is not our role to tell policy makers which scenario they should chose. We should not be activists. Different groups of people have different values and those values will be part of policy-making. We should instead ensure that scientific information is understood so that all evidence and values can be considered when policy is made.

However, the current policy-making process can be improved. A process should be developed that consistently and logically weighs science and socioeconomic values and has measures in place to reduce the influence of biases, corruption, and misinformation.

If the process is transparent and logical many people’s frustrations should be reduced. Scientists must learn to clearly and effectively communicate their knowledge to both the public and to policy makers. This is the role of scientists in policy: promoting informed decisions that lead to the best outcomes.