“As we develop science policy we need to look beyond the short-term context, beyond the research that looks immediately promising. If we’re blinded by the urgency of our problems, we will go the wrong way. We’ll be investing in horses, carriages and cleaning up the streets instead of fostering the research that can give rise to an idea or technology that is going to change the world.” (Mike Lazaridis, Power of Ideas, AAAS, 2012)
It’s time to engage, experiment and seek new opportunities to better communicate science policy.
It is heartening to see that the Canadian research lobby is engaging in the policy debates with a more activist and constructive agenda. We may have witnessed a tipping point with a new generation of tech-savvy and politically conscious scientists, youth and their allies who understand social media and know how to mobilize it for political effect. But it will take more to sustain the message. But be honest and modest about what science can and cannot deliver.
Here are some modest suggestions for maintaining the momentum.
Develop a clear public statement outlining why all of the sciences and knowledge matter (see for example President Obama’s 2013 speech to the National Academy of Sciences on the rightful place of science) with examples that have public resonance. Understand how media covers science– in both official languages. Write blogs and op-eds and comment through social media–resist the temptation to oversell the impacts.
Invite local parliamentarians from all stripes to events where science, creativity and innovation are on the agenda. Consider volunteering for CSPC, Evidence for Democracy, or join SPE and similar groups in Canadian universities and with NGOs. Don`t forget about citizen science and STEM science outreach groups such as Let’s Talk Science, Les Scientifines, Actua, Ingenium, Students on Ice, and our museums. Organize balanced, public science debates with all political parties in science cafes, and other venues, not just in the lead-up to federal, provincial or municipal elections.
Recognize that science is ultimately aimed at helping shape the human condition in all its respects. Yes, it needs to be framed within a contemporary context — but as science also provides the polity with sound evidence based on facts, it should not be arbitrarily muzzled or leashed. As Thomas Jefferson once said, whenever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government.
Ensure a science presence-activity in the celebration plans for special anniversaries, including international day of girls and women in science and world science day.
Challenge senior government officials and private sector leaders at all levels on future directions of science and knowledge for Canada. Get their attention about the need to renovate dated science and innovation approaches by making them more open and relevant to today’s climate and public needs.
Target key messages to senior ministers with science and research portfolios, as well as the board members of granting councils and other funding bodies, including the CSA and chief scientists in federal, provincial, territorial agencies. Demand public accountability and transparency in their operation, but also make efforts to learn how public policy works.
Examine, enlist and learn from similar campaigns that have been effective in other countries, especially those in the UK, France, Australia and the United States and learn how to engage private sector associations, NGOs and lobby groups more constructively.
Design and coordinate collective research community briefs or vision statements that are inclusive and diverse while also being action-oriented. Make it clear that researchers understand how to operate in a climate of uncertainty and priority-setting without jeopardizing first principles of excellence, integrity and transparency. Be sure to note that the very nature of science and knowledge is changing. All fields of knowledge matter as they become more intertwined.
Ultimately, Canadians require a more directed and visionary approach in moving past the rhetoric. It’s time to trigger a meaningful spark that can bring life and passion back to this country’s knowledge, science and innovation policy.