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Key take-aways from the 2019 Canadian Science Policy Conference

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Farah Qaiser, Editor-at-Large

On November 13, 2019, the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) returned to Ottawa to celebrate a decade of bringing together academia, industry and government to discuss science policy. Over three days, CSPC hosted a gala, five symposia and 40 panel sessions that engaged over 800 attendees on the theme of Building Bridges Between Science, Policy and Society. In this post, I’ll highlight some of the key take-away messages from this annual science policy conference.

The Canadian Science Policy Centre is a non-profit that aims to invite various stakeholders to discuss policy issues, related to science, technology, and innovation, in a non-partisan forum. The centre’s founder and CEO, Dr. Mehrdad Hariri, works alongside its board of directors and numerous volunteers to host the annual conference.

While there were several informative sessions this year, it’s easy for me to pick my two favourites – Evidence for Democracy’s (E4D) panel on how evidence is used in decision-making, and a second panel, hosted by Vista Science & Technology and Genome Canada, which explored the promise of science.



Evidence for Democracy’s (E4D) assembled panel on how evidence is used in decision-making. Credit: Farah Qaiser


The Evidence for Democracy panel

In the first panel, Dr. Kimberly Girling announced the release of a new E4D research report: Evidence in Action – An Analysis of Information Gathering and Use by Canadian Parliamentarians. The report found that there was a lot of variability in how Members of Parliament (MPs) gathered and used evidence, which could include speaking to constituents, or utilizing sources such as academic literature, experts and news media. It also found that MPs faced various challenges when it comes to using research-based evidence, including information overload, conflicting findings, and the potential bias/spin. E4D’s findings were echoed by other panellists, including Dr. Ted Hsu who is a former physicist and MP.

Dr. Karen Akerlof pointed out that in the U.S., Congress uses scientific evidence all the time but this is often employed strategically to support established positions. In addition, Akerlof pointed out that members of Congress also face barriers when it comes to using evidence, including the sentiment that if someone was coming to Congress, they have an agenda – which implies bias but doesn’t always disqualify the source’s credibility.

Similarly, Dr. Briony Lalor shared findings from a previous study, which involved interviewing 50 former environment ministers and senior bureaucrats across the world on the role of science in the environmental decision-making process. Lalor found that useful science-based information shared three characteristics (credibility, legitimacy and saliency), but that access to this type of information was rare.

Overall, the panel called for scientists to build relationships with decision-makers, pointed out the need to improve science literacy among elected political representatives, and suggested that scientists should take the time to package their science into a more accessible format for decision-makers.

The Vista Science & Technology and Genome Canada panel

My other favourite session explored the promise of science using a unique fishbowl format, where audience members could replace invited speakers in the ‘fishbowl’ to provide their perspectives on the topic. See Missed CSPC’s The Promise of Science session? Here are some key take-aways.



The conference included five symposia. This is a photo from the symposium titled Acting for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Canadian Science and Research. Credit: Krishana Sankar


Other key conference events

  1. At a panel about the future for young science policy practitioners, Dr. Canadian Institutes of Health Research Science Strategy Advisor Uzma Urooj said that there is a huge need for people with science backgrounds in the government as we slowly transition towards a knowledge-based economy. Urooj encouraged trainees to be extremely proactive when exploring opportunities and gaining different experiences, and to consider the Mitacs Canadian Science Policy fellowship and the Recruitment of Policy Leaders program as routes into government.
  2. During her lunch keynote session, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor Dr. Mona Nemer joked that coming to CSPC each year is akin to a performance review, and shared updates from her office on the topics of open science, science advice, and science diplomacy. Nemer pointed out that as scientists, we have a collective responsibility to look beyond the lab and engage with the public. She is planning to announce members of her youth advisory council.
  3. In a session exploring how the sciences of human behaviour can help place knowledge at the heart of policymaking, a four-person panel assembled by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre described the Enlightenment 2.0 research programme. Findings included the difficulties faced in separating emotion from reason in decision-making, and the challenges our critical thinking skills face in today’s information environment, making us very vulnerable to disinformation.



On Thursday, November 14, CSPC hosted a star-studded gala night. Credit: Canadian Science Policy Conference


Gala and awards

CSPC also hosted a star-studded gala night, featuring panelists Governor General Julie Payette, Dr. Donna Strickland (recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics), and Dr. Avery Broderick (a key researcher involved in the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration that produced the first image of a black hole). The discussion revolved around the benefits of science, the role of science in society, and how we can work towards supporting science and the next generation.

The gala night also featured two award ceremonies. The sixth Science Policy Award of Excellence went to Emily De Sousa, a University of Guelph graduate student and Youth Action on Climate Change founder, for a proposal on eliminating seafood fraud in Canada.

CSPC also recognized Paul Dufour for his exceptional contributions in science policy. In his acceptance speech, Dufour noted that he was gobsmacked (“Je suis gobsmacked”) and spoke about being inspired by his late father, Dr. Fernando Dufour, who created a 3-D depiction of the Periodic Table, referred to as ElemenTree.


Want to dive into more of the CSPC 2019 details? The conference sessions were live-tweeted using the hashtag #CSPC2019, especially by Shawn McGuirk (formerly of the Science & Policy Exchange). You can also expect session recordings to be released in the near future.



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