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Science Outside the Lab North - Science and Policy in Canada

Author: Tyler A. Black

Two weeks ago, I and 13 other graduate students and postdoctoral researchers were given an opportunity to attend Science Outside the Lab (SOtL) North in Ottawa and Montreal. SOtL brands itself as “a deep-dive, immersive introduction to science, policy, and societal impacts”. Led by Matt Harsh, a professor in Science, Technology, and Society at California Polytechnic State University, and Eric Kennedy, an assistant professor at York University working on policies surrounding wildfire management in Canada, SOtL provided us with frank, open discussions on the role of science for policy (and policy for science). We met with and learned from many representatives from government agencies, think tanks, and other organisations working at the science-policy interface, including:

Evidence for Democracy, Natural Resources Canada, the Tri-Council Funding Agencies (NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR), Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Canadian Council of Academies, the Institute on Governance, and more.

The week started with a “boot camp” introduction to science and policy. We learned from Matt and Eric the basics of how policy works in Canada and where science currently fits in that process. We went back to basics, tackling the question of "What is Science?", leading into a discussion on objectivity, biases (from research and communication of our science to how we interact with other's work), and how our values affect our perceptions and our work. This set us up for the rest of the week, where we would be meeting with several speakers in a casual, open discussion format.

Our cohort consisted of 14 students, each with our own experiences and backgrounds in the sciences, our own values and ideas of how science and policy should interact, often based around where our research fits into the political realm and how we are impacted, personally, by science and policy. Having such a diverse cohort provided ample discussion points, ranging viewpoints, and an opportunity to gain new and exciting perspective.

 SOtL North 2019’s Cohort A at the Canadian Council of Academies (CCA) in Ottawa, Ontario.
SOtL North 2019’s Cohort A at the Canadian Council of Academies (CCA) in Ottawa, Ontario.

Under Chatham House Rules, no reporting can include information on the speakers, their affiliations, and anything else that could possibly allow a statement to be attributed to a specific speaker. As such, the speakers had an opportunity to discuss openly their views, thoughts, and feelings on issues relating to the state of science and policy in Canada. Being able to hear genuine insights from our speakers was incredibly valuable. Each speaker started with a 5-10 minute introduction on themselves, their work, and a bit of their experience working in science and policy. We were then tasked with asking questions and guiding the conversation based on our own interests; this was a huge benefit as we were not subject to a lecture but were able to actively "pick the brains" of our speakers and interact with our cohort. At the end of each day, we would reflect on what we discussed and begin to piece together the many perspectives and ideas, developing a multidisciplinary idea of how to navigate the science-policy interface and the barriers to evidence-based decision making in Canada.

One recurring theme explored by our cohort was around the divide between academia and industry/government. Many individuals within my cohort are looking at taking the next step - some continuing in academia, others looking to careers in industry or government. Universities and some advisors often encourages students to continue in academia, fighting for the few tenured positions available; however, it is clear that most of us (over 80%) will not succeed in getting a tenure track position, bouncing between postdocs before moving on. Many students are left with little guidance in navigating the often tedious process of applying for government jobs or marketing our academic skills for industry (advisors, take note!). It was refreshing and reassuring to hear how our speakers navigated the move from grad school and postdoc positions to jobs in government and industry. We, as scientists, have expertise in our research areas but how do we market that beyond the academic world? We have the skills necessary to think critically, to manage large projects (and people, such as undergraduate students), to communicate effectively. Jobs in government require these transferable skills and it is important to realize that academia does provide them - we just have to market them accordingly.

Our speakers discussed the roles of science for policy and policy for science. Policy for science refers to how we conduct research, how we allocate funding, etc. Science for policy surrounds the development of regulations and the general implementation of evidence for decision making (science advice). It was fascinating seeing the many ways that you can engage with policy - there always seemed to be conflicting ideas of what works best and how scientists should share their findings. A common point of discussion surrounded "science advice" and how scientists should go about giving advice to decision-making bodies. We heard from one speaker that insisted they have developed a strong relationship with politicians and policy-makers on the basis of not providing recommendations and not providing advice on topics not immediately of concern to policy-makers. In contrast, another speaker insisted that policy-makers want to hear clear and concise recommendations from scientists and want them to actively participate in government and policy processes (i.e. not just present the science but communicate and appropriately translate the knowledge).

This led into another theme of the week pertaining to impact. What does it mean to be successful in what we are doing and how do we know we are having an impact? What is the best method for fostering positive change in the world? Is it possible to push for change while in the public service while also having to fulfill the mandates of the government at the time? We heard from an individual who had spent time in the public service but found that government moved too slow for them and they could not have the impact they wanted by remaining with government. This led them to a career in consulting, where application of research and the democratization of science was the focus, and allowed them the freedom to pursue issues and find solutions that were of importance to them. Conversely, a number of speakers enjoyed their time with government and found it to be rewarding. Ultimately, how you engage with policy is a deeply personal decision. Regardless of how it is done, we as scientists need to show up. We need to be the ones to translate and mobilize our work. Government is not good at understanding the problem; their primary focus in on developing a solution. Hence, it is up to us to ensure that it is being done in an effective and appropriate way.

"...we as scientists need to show up. We need to be the ones to translate and mobilize our work."

I left SOtL with a strong understanding of the science policy landscape in Canada. Beyond that, I have developed a strong network of like-minded scientists interested in science communication and in ensuring that decisions made by government are well informed. The interdisciplinary nature of SOtL, paired with personal examples from a variety of viewpoints provided an engaging and energizing atmosphere for learning. It was an invaluable experience that left me with a deep understanding of how I can engage with science and policy. I've still a lot to learn about public engagement, science communication, and knowledge mobilization, but I was provided with a foundation and network to succeed in this endeavour. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in science and policy in Canada to consider applying for SOtL 2020.

If you are interested in learning more about Science Outside the Lab North, check out their website.

Connect with me on Twitter: @_tylerandrew

Or LinkedIn: /in/tylerandblack


Have a field work story you want to share or want to showcase your research? Contact us at or @setac_pnc!



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