Getting to know you: science, government, and society renew acquaintances, post-pandemic
November 30, 2022
By Rhonda Moore and Jeff Kinder
Rhonda Moore is Executive Director, Science and Innovation, at the Institute on Governance (IOG). Jeff Kinder is Project Director at the Council of Canadian Academies and Executive-in-Residence, Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa. They co-lead IOG’s research project Government Science and Innovation in the New Normal.
Building relationships, then partnerships. Coordinating precious resources. Improving diversity in science. Doing things differently, faster.
These are just a few of the dominant discussion themes that pervaded the panel presentations and the hallway chats at the 2022 Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa from November 16 to 18.
You may think these topics are not entirely new, and you would be right. But this year, there was a new urgency to the conference conversations.
Someone once said never pass up the opportunity that a crisis brings. The COVID-19 pandemic might just be the crisis we need to rethink our scientific enterprise, and build something that is fit for our contemporary purposes. Responding to COVID has reinforced some valuable lessons about the relationship between science and society:
- Trust is hard to measure, easy to lose, and time consuming to rebuild. The crisis of the pandemic showed us what happens when we think we have a stronger relationship than we do. Rebuilding a trusting relationship between science and society will require getting to know each other again. Now that science has pulled back the curtain on scientific uncertainty and the messiness of the process, it is time to learn from it and re-establish the good governance that goes with it.
- Communicating complex scientific ideas means developing messages that are meaningful for the audience, not for the person delivering the message. A meaningful message has many facets that include: words, emotions, tone, and the identity of the person delivering the message. Strong communication can demonstrate transparency, accountability, leadership, and can help to build trust.
- The pandemic brought focus and coordination at domestic and international levels to respond to the crisis. Crisis response took many forms: vaccine development and manufacturing or procuring protective equipment; developing credit programs for people who lost their jobs; and people who (seemingly overnight) launched grocery delivery services and phone trees to check on the infirm and elderly in their neighbourhoods.
Each of these responses required a multiplicity of types of knowledge and skillsets, working together to consider different aspects of the pandemic response. But each with a common goal: How do we keep this kind of focus on the challenge (in order to transfer it to other challenges)? How do we maintain this level of collaboration between departments and across sectors? How do we capitalize on these interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborations?
Updated governance framework needed
The governance structure that underpins Canada’s scientific enterprise dates to the end of the Second World War, and is imbued with the social and cultural qualities that were in vogue at that time. The enterprise is based on the idea of a compact between science and society — put forth in a report called Science: The Endless Frontier (Bush, 1945) — that positioned science as a type of knowledge with limitless potential that could be mobilized to solve all of society’s problems.
This compelling presentation of science led to the creation of what is generally referred to as a social contract between science and society where society — through government — funds science in exchange for the untold and uncertain benefits that would arise from the scientific pursuit of new knowledge.
The Endless Frontier argued against science or research planning, and in favour of a great deal of autonomy for the scientific enterprise, categorized as “the free play of free intellects” to identify and address the challenges facing society. Scientists would allocate resources among themselves (peer review) and deal with their own errors in judgement (ethics and integrity).
The report is largely silent on issues of diversity and equity, on international collaboration and infrastructure, and on the concept of mission-driven or challenge-oriented pursuits, and how findings would be communicated back to government for the benefit of society.
Science has indeed brought about benefits to society in the last 75 years. In that time, science has also become a complex enterprise, divided into increasingly narrow and specific disciplines, each with its own language (jargon), community, and driven by a global practice of rewarding those who publish in journals that are inaccessible to most of us (as a result of complex language and paywalls).
In short, there are some real limits to the scientific enterprise that call into question whether science is fulfilling its compact with society.
Doing science and innovation in the “new normal”
This is why, in December 2020, the Institute on Governance launched a multidisciplinary, multisectoral project to examine the relationship between science and society especially with regard to government science.
The project, called Government Science and Innovation in the New Normal (GSINN), examines this relationship through nine themes:
- Equity, Diversity and Inclusion;
- Global Research Collaboration and Infrastructure;
- Inclusive Innovation;
- Interdisciplinary Collaboration;
- Indigenous and Other Ways of Knowing;
- Mission-directed Research and Innovation;
- Science Communication, Outreach and Public Engagement; Skills and Knowledge; and
- Trust, Integrity, and Science Ethics.
Each of these themes represents an omission in how the scientific enterprise was developed, or an assumption that must be corrected.
Taken together, these themes suggest elements of a new governance framework for science and innovation in Canada that embraces our current social, cultural and political realities, that recognizes the opportunities and limits of science. Perhaps most importantly, the project reinforces the role of science as part of society, and a tool ready to serve the needs of society.
Canadians deserve a scientific enterprise that addresses our most pressing needs, engages us using language we understand, and is made up of people who look like us. Canadians require a scientific enterprise that brings different organizations and groups together, not one that reinforces the false boundaries of disciplines or types of research.
We need a scientific enterprise that uses our resources wisely, and coordinates investment in our domestic priorities with our priorities abroad. We aspire to a scientific enterprise that knows its limits, and works to advance reconciliation with Indigenous people by recognizing and valuing the knowledge systems of the people who lived on this land before colonization. All of this is possible.
The COVID19 pandemic changed the world, and we are not going back.
Findings of the GSINN project are released through November and December, and available at www.iog.ca (for free, and in plain language).