Who Speaks for Science? Experience from Canada

Rees Kassen

On July 4, 2012, research teams at CERN in Geneva announced the discovery of a particle having all the hallmarks of the Higgs boson. The announcement was made cautiously, but with an obvious sense of excitement. This was big news. By all accounts, we now had experimental confirmation that the last remaining particle in the standard model's menagerie of the most basic components of matter might actually exist. The story went viral. There was talk of 'the God particle', the Twitterverse came alive with boson-jokes, and many heralded a new age for physics.

To be fair, the hype did get out of control from time to time. Many pundits predicted, incorrectly for the moment at least, a Nobel Prize for CERN and Higgs. Others, like Dan Gardner from Vancouver's The Province newspaper, questioned the value of the whole endeavor: 'People are starving, Earth's a mess, and our best minds are doing what?' was the headline. In the meantime, the geek media did their level best to explain the importance of the results and to justify why it all matters in the first place, to anyone who cared to listen.

But who is this so-called anyone? Or, more precisely, who is listening when science speaks? For an answer we can turn to science journalists, since their livelihood depends on them knowing their audience. John Rennie, former editor in chief at Scientific American, commented once that people read either because they have to, for work, or for entertainment. This is equally true in science, which means that the 'anyone' following the Higgs story is either, to a first approximation, a scientist or an already-committed consumer of science stories.

Higgs may have been unusual in the amount of attention it received for a science story. It is, after all, hard to resist a story about the God particle. For the majority of science stories, though, the only people paying attention are, for the most part, those who would have paid attention anyway. If this is true for the public at large, it was also true for one small but extremely important segment of that public: the elected officials who represent them. It is no surprise, then, that scientists are often frustrated in their efforts to get a fair hearing in decision-making and public affairs: there is no one at the other end who is listening to them.

The question is, what to do about it? Here I offer some reflections on the disconnect between scientists and elected officials, and discuss approaches currently underway in Canada to help bridge this gap.

Science walks into a bar and no one notices

A good part of the problem is that, with the exception of a few high profile figures and issues, science has effectively zero visibility among politicians. They are simply too busy to pay much attention. I have heard it said that in Canada, at least, Members of Parliament (MPs) spend up to 50% of their time dealing with just a single constituency issue – immigration appeals – on top of their regular parliamentary duties. When you add in travel between their constituency itself and the seat of government in a physically large country, there is precious little time left over to devote to understanding the intricacies of any issue, scientific or otherwise.

It is also the case that many are not trained in science. Canada's House of Commons has just 17 of 308 sitting MPs with at least a first degree in the natural sciences, engineering, or health sciences, according to the Canadian government's PARLINFO website. Most of the rest come to public life from a background in small business or law. But by itself this number is meaningless. Is 17 large or small? Well, consider this. If one uses nation-wide graduation rates in these disciplines as a guide, we would predict something like 98 MPs to have a science background. There is clearly a deficit here in the receptivity of the political class to science.

Scientists, for their part, seem reluctant to do their part. Most of us got into science out of a fascination for research and a love for knowledge. A mud-slinging political life was not for us. We also have a tendency to be accurate and comprehensive with our advice, rather than to the point and persuasive as is often needed in political life. And sometimes science seems to bear a heavier burden in the public eye for getting things wrong, as the recent conviction of six leading geoscientists in Italy for failing to give adequate warning about the chances of a major earthquake attests.

And to top it all off, we have a hard time letting go of our labs to participate in public life. The Canadian House of Commons has just one MP with a PhD in science, for example. The same is true of the UK, as David Adam of The Guardian reported earlier this year. The last US House of Representatives (2008-12) fares somewhat better, with eleven according to the website hillwho.com. 

So, not only are most elected officials not trained in science, they do not regularly work alongside scientists as colleagues or interact with them as friends. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that contrary to what most scientists might wish or think, science does not have any sort of preferred voice in decision-making. We have not cultivated an audience that is receptive to it. At best, politicians see us as a lobby group, just like any other. Science, and more generally evidence, clearly faces an up-hill battle in the halls of legislative power.

It starts with us

One of the biggest obstacles to cultivating a better relationship between decision-makers who use evidence and the researchers who collect and create it can be scientists themselves.  I know that this statement goes against the grain of what most scientists think. But consider this. A study released last year showed that scientists tend to blame poor policy decisions on a scientifically illiterate or uninterested political class and a media that oversimplifies complex ideas or unfairly sensationalizes controversy [1].

In other words, the problem is them, not us. If only, the thinking goes, politicians understood science better they wouldn't make 'wrong' decisions. But this misunderstands the problem entirely. Poor scientific decisions in politics are not necessarily a result of a lack of understanding. They are a lack of time and, more worryingly, motivation. Peter Calamai, former science-reporter for the Toronto Star, once remarked that it is one thing for the non-science public to not understand what the standard model in physics is. It is quite another, potentially more damaging, that the vast majority of people feel it doesn't matter they don't know. The same applies to our elected officials.

What we need is a new way for scientists to engage with elected officials. Simply stating the facts doesn't work. Scientists need to recognize and accept that, at the end of the day, they are playing politics.

The PAGSE approach

For the past three years I chaired the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE) – an association of science and engineering societies that provides the consensus opinion of the research community directly to the Canadian federal government. We estimate that we represent somewhere on the order of 50 -60,000 researchers who, by virtue of their membership in a professional society, are members of PAGSE. Our membership comes from all sectors of research life including academia, government, and industry.

PAGSE undertakes a number of initiatives designed to engage parliamentarians in discussions on scientific research. Probably our most important activity is to submit a Brief to and testify before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, which makes recommendations on budget spending to Cabinet. Our aim is not to lobby on behalf of any particular group or issue, but rather to explain to lawmakers what investments in research would best serve the country as a whole.

We also meet regularly with top civil servants responsible for government departments that have science as part of their core mission. These meetings are tremendously important and valuable, on both sides of the table. The departments, after all, are the ones feeding advice directly to the Ministers. It is therefore important for us to know what their priorities are and the challenges they face. In turn, PAGSE provides a ready national network that the bureaucrats can access, if necessary, for expert opinion and advice.

We also run two education projects. One is our flagship Bacon & Eggheads program, a breakfast seminar series where top-flight researchers address Parliamentarians, their staff, the media and bureaucrats on scientific issues in their field. We work hard to identify excellent researchers who are also outstanding communicators on topics that are of current relevance to the political and legislative agenda of the day. The speakers make their presentation over breakfast – before the work of Parliament begins in earnest for most MPs – and we allow ample time for informal discussion and interaction before and after the presentation. Bacon & Eggheads thus provides a space for parliamentarians and researchers to interact, face-to-face in an apolitical atmosphere.

The other is a newer project called SciencePages where we aim to increase discussion on topical issues having science at their core by summarizing, briefly and in accessible language, the current state of knowledge and policy. Each issue is prepared by a team of three interns – one each from science, policy, and communications – peer-reviewed by experts in both science and policy, and distributed to Parliamentarians and the public. This approach has the advantage of filling two important gaps in the Canadian science-policy landscape. One is the need for short, readable, and, above all, credible notes on science-related issues. The other is the opportunity for the vast pool of young, talented, individuals interested in science and policy to get hands-on experience working at the interface between these two disciplines.

PAGSE has had an impact, at least on the side of improving the landscape within which research is done in Canada. Although it is rarely possible to know the inner workings of government decisions, many of PAGSE's recommendations have at least been in tune with recent actions. Examples include the creation, in 2010, of an internationally competitive postdoctoral fellowship program and, in 2011, increased support for international training and research. These were both suggestions that came, in part, from PAGSE.

In the shadow of evidence

PAGSE has established credibility amongst policy-makers in Canada. Its work happens quietly, behind the scenes. We try to work with the government to improve the climate, on behalf of Canadians, for research, innovation, and evidence-based decision making. Because it is not a lobby group, it also does not criticize. This means it has to be careful of what it does and does not say. There is a fine line between providing a consensus opinion and lobbying, and PAGSE works hard not to cross it.

This means there is a limit to what PAGSE can do. PAGSE has been most effective when it speaks on 'policy-for-science' initiatives aimed at improving the climate for research and innovation. Successes have been harder to come by in the other direction, on 'science-for-policy', perhaps because there are too many ways in which statements can seem partisan, especially when it comes to the environment and sustainable resource use. Recent government decisions weakening habitat protection for fish species and environmental regulations on resource extraction are a case in point.

There may be room here for a more vocal, pro-active approach, one that can hold the government to account on issues regarding the use of evidence in decision-making. If so, it won't be PAGSE who will take up the charge. Some other institution or organization will have to step up to do this work. In some countries this is the role played by national academies or other groups, such as the AAAS, that take on the mantle of being advocates for science. In Canada, despite numerous attempts over the years, no one organization has emerged to fill this gap.

The situation may be changing, however. Last July, close to 2000 scientists, all dressed in lab coats and carrying a casket into which was delivered reams of data, text books, and other paraphernalia of the scientific life, marched through the streets of Ottawa to Parliament Hill. They staged a mock funeral eulogizing the 'death of evidence' in decision-making by the federal government and the muzzling of government scientists.

By most accounts the event was a success. Nature ran a lead editorial on the march, noting, in a direct message to the federal government, that, "scientific expertise and experience cannot be chopped and changed as the mood suits." Perhaps as a result, when a government plan to pipe bitumen from the tar sands of northern Alberta to the British Columbia coast came under fire, it was the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who announced that the decision on where and how to construct a pipeline would be based on science. This is significant. That it was the PM who made the statement and not, as would normally be the case, one of his Ministers, is a signal that the government heard what the marchers were saying.

A place for science in politics

The leading challenge confronting scientists is not the quality of our science, it is the receptivity of decision-makers to that science. There is a sense shared by many around the world that the level of receptivity is worryingly low. The triumphs and hopes of science are not their triumphs or hopes.

Scientists have to shoulder some of the blame for this situation. For too long we have seen ourselves as above the fray of politics, with the result that we have effectively removed ourselves from the decision-making process. This cannot continue.

We need to be willing and effective communicators with civil society and decision makers. The aim here is to increase the receptivity of the political class to science, so that when the time comes to make decisions, science gets at least a fair hearing. PAGSE, with its quiet, non-advocative approach, is one way of doing this. A more pro-active, responsive approach such as the activism of this past summer's march on Parliament Hill may be another. No doubt a combination of both is worthwhile, and the challenge for the future will be to strike the right balance between the two.


[1]J. C. Besley, M. Nisbet (2011). Public understanding of science.
DOI: 10.1177/0963662511418743

Rees Kassen is associate professor and University Research Chair in Experimental Evolution at the University of Ottawa. He is currently co-chair of the Global Young Academy and is past-chair of PAGSE and a former World Economic Forum Young Scientist.

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.