Q&A: Quebec's Chief Scientist shares lessons on science advice during a pandemic

Lindsay Borthwick
August 25, 2021

Global leaders in science advice and science diplomacy will come together next week at INGSA2021, the 4th International Conference on Science Advice to Governments, to discuss how to “Build Back Wiser” after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The conference, to be held from August 30 to September 2, is being hosted in Canada for the first time by Dr. Rémi Quirion, the Chief Scientist of Quebec. More than 1,600 people have registered to attend the hybrid event, which will convene some leading thinkers and practitioners in Montreal. 

INGSA2021 was postponed from last fall. As a result, “the focus of the conference changed quite a bit,” explained Quirion. “Many of us in different countries and regions of the world asked, can we learn something from the pandemic so that all countries will be better prepared in the future? How do we share best practices? What worked and what did not work so well? Hopefully, one of the outcomes of the pandemic will be the realization that we need better structures in terms of science advice.”

Research Money spoke with Quirion on the phone about how the pandemic has shaped science advisory systems globally, and how INGSA2021 could contribute to creating stronger and more dynamic ties between scientists and policymakers.

Research Money: You helped found INGSA, a global platform for policy exchange, capacity building, and research on science advice, in 2014. How has the pandemic influenced the organization?

Rémi Quirion: In a way, the pandemic helped increase the visibility of INGSA, of science advice, of science. That comes with challenges, but the good side is that it drew attention to the need for permanent mechanisms for science advice. It showed that you cannot build those mechanisms on demand when you are in the middle of an emergency. 

R$: You mentioned that the pandemic raised the profile of science advisors and the role of science advice in government. How have the structures or mechanisms for delivering science advice changed as a result of the pandemic? Have they grown stronger?

RQ: We have been more challenged than in normal times. Think about the United Kingdom, which is where the tradition of a chief science advisor comes from. They started the whole thing many years ago and similar models have been implemented elsewhere, mostly in Commonwealth countries. But in the past year, even in the U.K., which has a very strong science advisory system in place, the mechanism was challenged. At the time, the U.K. was struggling to adequately respond to the pandemic, and a group set up a parallel system because they thought the existing one was too close to the government. 

In contrast, President Macron of France set up an ad hoc system of committees and working groups to guide the country’s pandemic response. It wasn’t very dynamic. The members did their best, but the structure was set up in an emergency and their linkages with the rest of the world weren’t as strong as the network the Commonwealth had. 

We also saw that in places without a science advice mechanism, the politicians didn’t know where to turn. So one of the lessons is that we need more formalized systems in place that can react quickly and that elected officials already know, so you don't have to start dating during an emergency. You already know each other.

R$: Does Canada need to go farther toward establishing a formalized system? 

RQ: In Canada, it's still relatively new. [Chief Science Advisor] Mona Nemer is still building the team at the federal level and putting the key contacts in place. We need more structure all across the country because of the way Canada is organized. Regional governments have a lot of power: healthcare is a provincial matter. Education is provincial. As a result, it proved challenging to get a global view of what is happening in Canada. With some of the provinces, it wasn’t clear who you should turn to. So my bias is that at least the larger provinces should have a structure like the one we have in Quebec.

R$: The UN Climate Change Conference, COP 26, is on the horizon. Can we take advantage of the high levels of public trust in science that we are seeing at the moment in Canada as policymakers move toward addressing climate change? 

RQ: One positive result of the pandemic may be that. The challenge now is finding ways to use what we have learned from the pandemic and then adapt it to other global challenges. What is not easy with climate change is that you don't see the impact on your family every day. So we are thinking about how to make climate change much more concrete so that people say, "Ok, that's what it means for my street, for my neighbourhood." I think the younger generation can help us there. We have to find a way to channel their energy so that it convinces our elected officials to act. 

R$: INGSA2021 has four themes: Science advice, society, trust, and the Francophonie. Why is there a need to focus on the French-speaking world?

RQ:  The nature of science advice is likely different depending on the culture of the country. We knew that but the pandemic reinforced it. And the model we have is mostly a Commonwealth model, with a chief scientist and chief science advisors working within government ministries. However, in many countries, for example in French-speaking Africa, that model will not fly. it's not in the culture to have one or two people serving as the point person for science advice. They prefer to be organized by working groups, by committees. The same applies to Latin America and Asia. We also need to have a different language, different ways of saying things. Not just words in French or words in English, but the way you write, the way you deliver advice. So the cultural aspect of how you deliver science advice is something that INGSA would like to focus on in the future. 

R$: You’re also going to announce a new science advice network for francophone nations.

RQ: Yes. I will announce the creation of that network at the end of the conference. We will establish a network among the various countries that will be a bit like what we see with the Commonwealth. It will help build capacity in terms of science advice in the French-speaking world.

R$: As you look back over the last year and a half and consider Canada’s pandemic response, where do you think Canada can learn from its peers around the world?

RQ: Something else we'll talk quite a bit about at the conference is local government. When you think about climate change, and we also saw this with the pandemic, it's the cities that are dealing with the consequences on the ground. So more and more, science advice is important in cities. In fact, Montreal is thinking about setting up some kind of structure to provide science advice to elected officials at the municipal level.

Canada also needs stronger connections with the rest of the world. Over the past 30 years, I think we have lost a bit of our international role, so we are not as strongly linked with many parts of the world as we need to be, especially when we’re confronted with an emergency. That's something that I hope we'll be able to rebuild.


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