Mitacs launches pilot program to embed science experts in federal government

Mark Henderson
October 11, 2016

Science minister an enthusiastic supporter

The task of building science policy capacity within government has received a major boost with the launch of a pilot fellowship program that will see 11 post-doctoral fellows and faculty embedded in various federal departments and agencies around Ottawa. The aim is to establish a two-way flow of science expertise and evidence-based decision making within government as a conduit for developing internal and external departmental science policy capacity which has been in decline in recent years.

The Canadian Science Policy Fellowship program was developed by Mitacs in conjunction with the Univ of Ottawa's Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP), drawing for inspiration on a long-standing S&T policy fellowship program managed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The pilot cohort was in Ottawa last week preparing for their one-year fellowships, culminating in a roundtable discussion with Science minister Kirsty Duncan, who organizers say has become an enthusiastic supporter and champion.

"There's a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. The fellows are already embedded in their departments (and) Duncan is committed to seeing the program move forward and increase the stream of fellows," says Dr Alejandro Adem, CEO and scientific director of Mitacs. "There are an awful lot of very thoughtful people in government who recognize the value of bringing in young expertise. They have fresh ideas and a desire to work hard."

The fellowship program was spearheaded by Dr Rob Annan, Mitacs' chief research officer until he stepped down in August, in conjunction with Dr Scott Findlay, a professor of biology at the Univ of Ottawa and an ISSP member. Also engaged is Dr Sarah Otto, a theoretical biologist and director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at the Univ of British Columbia who first brought the concept to Mitacs' attention about two years ago.

There are plans to expand the scope of the program if the pilot is deemed a success, with more federal entities and provincial government as potential future hosts.

"The program could become a huge policy force, a functional nucleation point for the development of science capacity by addressing the needs and aspirations of the hosts to engage the broader community," says Findlay. "If the first year goes reasonably well, there will be a whole bunch more hosts that want to become involved as well as a deluge of applicants."

Canadian Science Policy Fellowship Recipients

Natural Resources Canada

Marie Claire Brisbois, Univ of Guelph

Alexandra Mallett, Carleton Univ

Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Marija Cemma, Univ of Toronto

Justin Marleau, McGill Univ

Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council

Aaron Franks, Queen's Univ

Carin Holroyd, Univ of Saskatchewan *

Defence R&D Canada

Kimberly Girling, Univ of British Columbia

Joelle Thorpe, Queen's University

Global Affairs Canada

Pierre-Olivier B├ędard, Laval Univ

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Jacquelyne Poon, Univ of Cambridge

Office of the Auditor General of Canada

Derek van der Kamp, Univ of British Columbia

* SSHRC in partnership with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada

To participate, each department and agency is required to contribute $70,000 per fellow as well as a small research budget. Due to tight timelines, several prospective hosts were unable to participate in the pilot, but approximately 75 applicants applied with the successful fellows matched up with specific science policy needs of the hosts.

While not a formal objective of the program, the fellowships could be an avenue into future science policy work in government.

"There's an opportunity for departments and agencies to get people in and look them over," says Findlay "It could be an effective proving ground and recruitment tool."

Adem says he's hopeful the program can be expanded and that a more organized support system within the government can be established.

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