New directions for science advice in federal government
Speakers: Sarah Gallagher, Science Advisor, Canadian Space Agency (CSA); Donna Kirkwood, Chief Scientist, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan); Dan Wayner, Science Advisor and Chief Science Officer, National Research Council (NRC)
Moderator: Toby Fyfe, President, Institute on Governance
How to link policymakers and scientists for better decision making
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau caught the attention of Canada’s scientific community when he took office in 2015 pledging that political decisions would be based – or at a minimum informed – by robust scientific evidence.
“This is a golden opportunity to demonstrate the value of science,” said NRCan Chief Scientist Donna Kirkwood.
But how does that process work in the real world where policymaking and science have different cultures, timelines, priorities and ways of communicating? Do the politicians value science and integrate it into their decision making? Within the public service, are we witnessing a shift in mindset and practice that engages science at the beginning of policy and program discussions?
And in a world where big data keep growing while public trust in “facts” wanes, is the government science community ready, willing and able to drive government agendas such as policy making and regulatory reform?
Those were among the questions the Institute on Governance’s Toby Fyfe asked the panel of science advisors.
“For the government to value science, I don’t see that there’s a challenge there. Where I see a greater challenge is integrating science into decision making,” said Kirkwood.
She identified three main roles for science in government: to support the public good (e.g., understanding the state of Canada’s forests); to fulfil federal responsibilities (e.g., regulations, standards, laws, policies); and to inform politicians on specific issues.
Relationship building is key
According to Kirkwood, mismatched timelines are the biggest hurdle to integrating science into policymaking. Policymakers need to make decisions within weeks, days or even hours. Scientific research can spans years if not decades.
“It’s up to both communities to understand that it’s important to feed the right information at the right time,” she said. Strong relationships and trust between policymakers and scientists are key, which means scientists need to be part of any discussions on an issue from the beginning.
The CSA’s recently appointed Science Advisor said the best way to build relationships and trust is to embed scientists on policy teams where they can better understand what bureaucrats and politicians need.
“As an advisor, you spend most of your time listening, to the people with the scientific knowledge who can contribute to the conversation, and to those who need advice,” says Dr. Sarah Gallagher, who reports directly to the CSA’s President.
Gallagher is one of several departmental chief science advisors (DSAs) — outside experts, often from academia – who are being appointed to provide scientific support to policymakers. The UK and New Zealand are among the countries with DSA networks.
Gallagner describes these external advisors as “internships for grown-ups”.
“You have somebody with the capacity who can integrate that scientific data, share it in a digestible form with their colleagues so that data can be incorporated where it’s needed … at every step of the decision making policy process,” says Gallagher, who continues to hold an associate professorship in astronomy and astrophysics at Western University.
Use language bureaucrats can understand
For science advice to be effective, it needs to be communicated in a way that is useful and understandable to policymakers, said Dan Wayner, who in September became the NRC’s first Science Advisor and Chief Science Officer, reporting directly to the NRC’s President.
“Scientists are really good at communicating with each other but not so good at communicating with people who aren’t scientists and most decision makers are not scientists,” said Wayner. “We need to be able to condense the meaning of the scientific outcome, result or body of evidence into something they can understand for decisions.”
Another challenge for decision makers, said Wayner, is that new technologies are arriving on the market faster than science can discern their economic and societal impacts and implications. It’s also becoming more difficult to rapidly analyze the tsunami of data being generated from a seemingly unlimited number of sources.
Sharing knowledge across government is a perennial issue, particularly data that are relevant to multiple departments.
“We need to understand not only how to integrate evidence into departmental decisions but how we integrate across departments and across government,” said Wayner, adding that new technologies such as artificial intelligence can also be utilized to develop policy.
Progress is being made among departments to work more collaboratively both internally and externally, a change Kirkwood said “is being driven by the highest levels all the way down”. For example, the Deputy Ministers Science Committee meets regularly to discuss issues like how artificial intelligence and quantum computing can help to improve the decision-making process.
Just the facts
What happens when the government of the day isn’t a strong advocate for evidence-based decision making, and what if you as a scientist disagree with a particular policy or decision, Fyfe asked the panel.
Scientists need to be “honest brokers” that provide advice based on rigorous, credible and relevant evidence, not opinions, cautioned Kirkwood.
Wayner agreed, saying “My job is not to judge the policy, but to provide information that supports an evidence-based decision…. There’s a difference between giving advice and trying to influence. This is arms-length advice.”
At the same time, science advisors need to acknowledge that they may not have all the answers. “We need to recognize the limitations of the evidence we present... It’s complicated. We give an opinion on the best available information,” said Wayner, stressing that scientific evidence is just one input into decision making.
Strong linkages between government science, industry and academia are also important. “A healthy scientific community has all three pillars,” Gallagher told delegates. “By working together, it makes them more robust to what could be happening on the top political level.”
At the CSA, for example, various directors have external advisory communities, drawn largely from academia, as well as other government departments.
However, Wayner noted that government and academia have difference governance structures that can make collaborations difficult. Siloed behaviour, he added, has also become entrenched for some in government, “and behaviours are difficult to change quickly”.
Galagher said that culture change will inevitably be driven in large part by young entrants to the public service who thrive on collaboration and networking and understand its importance. “It’s not just about bringing the right experts with the right disciplines but also ensuring in the public service that we have people who realize benefits of bringing people together … what skills and competencies do we need to enable these relationships to happen?”
Lastly, Kirkwood said open science and science literacy are critical to bridging the gap between science and policy, while also building public trust by making both the scientific research and decision making process more transparent.