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Canada Science Policy Conference, Day 2

October 29, 2009

Today was a full-day session at the Canadian Science Policy Conference, composed of two morning plenary panel sessions, a keynote address by Preston Manning, and two small-session afternoon slots. I’ll just provide a short overview of the major themes, with a few highlights. I apologize for the length of the post…

The first morning session was titled “Canada’s National Science and Technology Strategy“, and provided a broad-view perspective on where our national science policy should go. The session included panelists Alain Beaudet (president of CIHR), Heather Munro-Blum (Principal and Vice-Chancellor, McGill), Christopher Paige(VP Research, University Health Network, Toronto), and Peter Singer (Professor of Medicine and Bioethics, UofT). Like in other sessions last night and today, most speakers are suggesting that our science policy should be overwhelmingly focused on innovation. Drs. Beaudet and Munro-Blum both focused on the need to encourage excellence in Canada. Dr. Munro-Blum, in particular, was quite pointed in some of her remarks, suggesting that Canada too often treats every policy as an equalization program. She suggested that Canada was losing ground compared to other countries and that, while we don’t need to match these countries dollar for dollar, we should at least be moving in the same direction. Dr. Beaudet emphasized that we shouldn’t spread funding too thin, and need to be more selective and encourage excellence. Dr. Paige emphasized the historical role of hospitals in city-building, and pointed out the degree to which they serve as economic engines in their communities. Dr. Singer gave a barnburner of a speech, taking a different approach to suggest that it is time to internationalize Canadian science and make it a key part of our brand. “Are Tim Horton’s and hockey our comparative global advantage?” he asked. He suggested that becoming leaders in science represented an opportunity for Canadian foreign policy to matter again, citing Lester Pearson’s role in the creation of the UN peacekeeping force as the last time Canada was at the global fore. He suggested we go from blue helmets to white lab coats (it is a credit to his speaking ability, and to the general mood in the room, that this seemed like an eminently reasonable goal…).

The second morning session was “The Canadian Economy: From Resource-based to Knowledge-Driven“, and included panelists Suzanne Fortier (President of NSERC), Peter Hackett (former VP Research NRC, etc.), Peter Nicholson (President, Council of Canadian Academies), Mark Lievonen (President Sanofi-Pasteur), and chair Chad Gaffield (President SSHRC). Peter Nicholson provided an interesting overview of the mandate of the CCA. He also pointed out that Canada’s so-called “productivity gap” with the US has been widening since it peaked in 1984, which he ascribed to poor business innovation. During that time, however, Canadian business profitability has remained largely stable, and has exceeded US profitability 80% of that time – there is thus little motivation for business to innovate. Suzanne Fortier’s speech was enthusiastic about the need to do better, but was rather short on specifics – there were some metaphors about removing speed bumps and building skyscrapers and supercharging engines, but little of real substance. Peter Hackett suggested that the challenges to innovation are deep, cultural issues, but represent the fundamental challenge facing Canadian science. He suggested that individuals are intrinsically innovative, but that institutions are not – unfortunately, Canadian policy is very institutionalized, and he suggested we need to get government out of the way more often. Mike Lievonen provided an overview of the history of Sanofi-Pasteur – a case study in how to grow a Canadian company from startup to global enterprise. Again, the overarching theme focused on how to improve innovation, but little in the way of specific policy ideas was suggested.

The keynote address was delivered by Preston Manning, and was the highlight of the conference thus far. Manning provided a master class in how to improve the state of science policy in Canada, by suggesting three challenges with suggestions for how to meet them:

1. Increase the number of science-receptive people at senior political levels in Ottawa

Manning pointed out that of some 400 MPs and senators, he could count maybe 8 who had a solid science background of any kind. He said the numbers are similar among senior political staff. This lack of familiarity with science, rather than any sort of actual bias, is why science has so little influence in Ottawa. This needs to change for science to play a larger role in Canadian policy. He offers two prescriptions: a) scientists need to identify their own who can be nominated for office and become elected. He suggests scientists need to be proactive about increasing the science literacy on the hill; and b) a need to establish a parliamentary office of science and technology (POST). He cited the influence of the British POST office, which produces regular short papers on science issues and distributes them to elected officials. We need a “scientist general” to spread science on the hill

2. Raise the strategic and financial commitment to R&D in the private sector.

We need to create incentives to compensate for the profitability of Canadian firms despite the lack of innovation. He also suggested the creation of science policy think tanks who could tackle this problem, which has been a thorn in Canada’s side for decades. His own foundation is apparently backing a “Centre for Innovation and Prosperity”, which he suggests will be more of a “do-tank” – work to find solutions instead of more discussion.

3. Bridge the communication gap between scientists and politicians.

Manning suggested that scientists have no idea of just how much communication dominates all aspects of politics, and pointed out the difference in how scientists and politicians speak about issues. Whereas scientists provide detailed and fully-articulated arguments to justify their position, politicians need to be able to summarize the position in a short, precise, and persuasive 90 seconds (which is on the very long side of the estimate, he suggested). When scientists start talking, the immediate evaluation of any politician is whether or not he/she can sell the idea to the constituents through available media. Only if the idea is “sellable” can the politician be persuaded to support it. Manning suggests that understanding this will go a long way to helping scientists increase their influence and support. He also offered three suggestions: a) all scientists need to engage in Receiver-Oriented Communication, rather than Source-Oriented Communication, at least when dealing with politicians. Frame all communication in terms and format that are relevant to the politician; b) hire lobbyists (he didn’t say that explicitly) – professionals who know exactly how to package ideas so that they are easily digestible and adoptable for politicians; c) create a working group who can work on the application of the science of communication to the communication of science (he liked that phrase – it’s pretty good). Basically, figure out new and innovative ways to get the message out.

Manning concluded with the exhortation to DO something, anything, instead of continuing to talk. He suggested even taking a single idea from the conference and running with it. Certainly, I’m sensing a strong spirit of commitment to make something happen at this conference. We’ll see how it translates into practical application.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2009 04:17

    The comment on communication is key. Scientists make complicated concepts easy to understand every day – it’s called first year biology, or chemistry or physics…but when it comes to their own research it is less evident. We train graduate students in clear language writing so they can make their research accessible. Next on this list is to explore a program like Stanford’s Leopold Leadership which incorporates elements of policy and communications training for scientists.

    David Phipps
    York University

  2. Rob Annan permalink*
    October 30, 2009 15:56

    From Jim:
    Preston Manning is a bright guy who we should applaud for taking on the mantle of the lack of communication between scientists and politicians – but his proposed remedy is worrying. In essence, he is saying that we should dumb down/simplify our messages to something a politician can digest and sell. Oddly, if he’d been at the Gairdner lectures given by some of the worlds top scientists just over the road from the policy meeting, he’d have heard Lucy Shapiro talk eloquently about her life-time work on bacterial growth which, through the study of basic mechanisms, is now leading to the development of new antibiotics. I fail to understand how her work and research ethic could be communicated in 90 seconds or less to a politician except, perhaps, in hindsight. When she started this work, she had no clue that it would have strikingly effective application. This is innovation done at its best. New antibiotics based on entirely new biological principles.
    Surely, there can be some meeting in the middle? If our politicians demand we bow to their level, our communication might be more effective, but it will also be diluted to be of little value. I agree that we need more scientists in government, but that is a much longer term proposition. There is a new Health Research caucus led by Senator Keon that was launched recently – so there is some positive news on that front.

  3. November 1, 2009 07:00

    To Jim and David: I can tell you that even a first-year-biology language is too complicated for somebody who did not study in science, either because he hated science in high school, either because high school science is too far away in his memory. What Preston Manning was saying was, indeed, what students in Communication 101 or Journalism 101 are learning: when you talk to somebody, including politician, you must adjust to what he his. Not necessarily what he knows, but what interests him, what idea will be “talking” to him.

    By the way, great synthesis, Rob. 🙂

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      November 1, 2009 10:32

      I agree – communication of science by scientists is always a bit of a contentious issue, and I’m afraid I likely didn’t help matters by being a bit imprecise. What Preston Manning was suggesting – and I agree with his point – is that IF science is being communicated for the purpose of achieving a goal, whether increased funding or increased public support, then scientists need to be able to communicate the work in such a way as to maximize the likelihood of achieving that goal. In the same way that it would be inappropriate to give the same talk as a visiting lecturer to a university department when you attend your child’s “bring your parent to school day”, it is inappropriate to lobby politicians without taking into account the particular needs/interests of the politicians.

      It isn’t about dumbing down the science. It’s about understanding that a primary need for politicians is the need to explain their positions to the electorate. Scientists may still need to be able to persuade the politician to support them by involving longer and more involved arguments, but if the politician can’t see how to explain efficiently and effectively how to communicate the reason for support, then the position is unsupportable. So, there may be a million reasons to support a given project, but the politician still needs to be able to say “this research will save thousands of lives through applying genomics to diagnosis”. If scientists can make it clear that there is a straightforward and persuasive way to argument for a project’s support, then they’re far more likely to find a receptive ear.

  4. Jim permalink
    November 2, 2009 12:22

    Rob, thanks for the clarification but it doesn’t really help. Sure, we can tell our MPs that they should support research project X because it will save a thousand lives but we will be called to account at some point and the fact is that for most research we have no clue whether it will even have practical applications. By pursuing this sort of high level promise, we may be doing a significant disservice to science whereby the *only* research that satisfies an elevator pitch will receive support. This, rather obviously, would be disastrous to discovery science and if the rug is pulled from that, the well of more applied science will quickly run dry. I understand that we scientists are poor communicators to the public that pays us, but we also have to be accountable in how we “sell” our research. By extrapolating and using generalizations to find a nugget that a politician finds palatable is a road that will inevitably lead to loss of credibility. I already see too many promises of “cures in our lifetime” to be able to sleep well at night…..


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