New Science Meets Parliament initiative brings researchers and policymakers into conversation

Mark Mann
November 21, 2018

The Canadian Science Policy Centre launched a new networking initiative for politicians and researchers at its annual conference in Ottawa this year, called Science Meets Parliament. The aim of the pilot program is to foster awareness and understanding between lawmakers and scientists, and to cultivate better communication between the two.

The initiative brought 29 Canadian scientists to Ottawa on November 6 to meet with 45 MPs and Senators from across the political spectrum. The politicians made themselves available in different capacities: meeting the scientists in face-to-face meetings at their offices, sharing breakfast or lunch, or inviting them to sit in on the committee meetings of the day. All of the participating scientists were also able to attend question period.

While these encounters with scientists provided an educational opportunity for politicians, the program mainly seeks to familiarize the scientific community with how the Hill actually functions, and to give them an opportunity to explain their research in a political context.

“It’s a learning process for scientists to see how policy-making is done at the political level,” explains Mehrdad Hariri, the founder, CEO and president of the Canadian Science Policy Centre, who organized the event. His aim was to promote and deepen the culture of evidence-based decision-making by helping the scientists "understand how difficult and multi-angular the decision-making is on the Hill."

Hariri strongly highlighted a key feature of the initiative: no one asks for money. “This is not for advocacy purposes,” he says. “We communicated that with the scientists… that [they] should not ask for financial support from the government.” Hariri points out that if we want to promote the culture of evidence-based decision-making in Canada, the relationship between science and parliament needs to go way beyond the question of funding.

While political lobbying remains a vital exercise for many scientific organizations, Science Meets Parliament maintains a low-pressure, informal ethos, so the two groups can concentrate on authentic interactions and forming relationships. “To my knowledge, this has not happened in a systematic way before,” says Hariri. “We are trying to bridge that gap and to provide one layer of communication between scientists and the politicians on the Hill.”

Asked why politicians need better lines of communication with scientists, retired conservative politician Preston Manning — a supporter of the event and a frequent attendee at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa — said in an email to RE$EARCH MONEY that "the scientist-politician relationship needs to be more than one dimensional ... and better, more diverse communications can broaden and deepen the relationship to the benefit of both."

Successful models

The Science Meets Parliament program is modelled on the Library of Parliament’s Teacher’s Institute, which brings educators to Ottawa for a week each year. Another inspiration was an Australian initiative also called Science Meets Parliament. Mounted by Science and Technology Australia, which represents 70,000 members of Australia’s research community, the program convenes hundreds of scientists for a two-day gathering in Canberra each year.

Dr. Jeremy Brownlie, a representative from Science Meets Parliament Australia, attended this year’s inaugural Canadian version of the event. Even though lobbying is forbidden, he pointed out that the program has helped Australian researchers find support for large projects, such as the proposed Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the largest radio telescope in the world. “It’s a multi-billion dollar investment from the international community,” he said. “That was part of a partnership through our researchers and politicians working collaboratively together.” They were able to identify ways to make the investment relevant for multiple sectors, not only basic research.

The event was championed by members of each of the three main political parties. Dan Ruimy, Liberal MP for Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge and chair of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (INDU), hosted the Science Meets Parliament reception. The science critic for the NDP, Brian Masse, and the science critic for the Conservatives, Michael Chong, also shared hosting duties with Ruimy.

“You’d think it would be common sense, but the notion that scientists engage with politicians is actually quite a novel idea,” Ruimy told the crowd. For the researchers in the room, Ruimy had this message: “Go meet your MPs, because they will be your champions, if they know you’re there.”

Anticipating growth

The 2018 Science Meets Parliament program was only made available to the 948 current holders of Tier 2 Canada Research Chairs, who are considered to be exceptional emerging researchers and potential leaders in their fields. This decision was made to minimize the pool of applicants. “Since this was a pilot project, we wanted to keep it small, to see how it functions,” explains Hariri. In the future, the CSPC plans to gradually expand the event and open it up to more of the Canadian scientific community.

Speaking with participants both before and after the event, Hariri identified a lot of appetite on both sides for this type of informal contact between scientists and policy-makers . “We live in an age of complexity," he says. "The issues that we are facing all have some scientific element to them. We better be prepared in both our scientific communities and our policy communities… to have established linkages of communication.”


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