In a 2017 survey, researchers found that 56% of PhD graduates took jobs in academia after earning their degree, while the majority of remaining participants went into the pharmaceutical or biotechnical industry. Of the many disregarded career paths, perhaps one of the most interesting is the job of a science advisor within the government. Located at the crucial intersection between science and government, this role involves ensuring the proper use of scientific analysis in government decision making, providing guidelines for scientific research, and ensuring that federal research is accurate and freely available to the public. When this intersectionality between scientists and government bodies is properly utilized, the potential for ground-breaking research, creativity, innovation and design becomes boundless. For example, the United States government spent over $55.4 billion on military R&D in 2018 alone, leading to several key findings with significant implications: inflammatory marker Il-33 in sepsis, revascularization following severe cardiac ischemia and gut microbiome-immune system interactions. These studies are proof of the great science that is made possible with cooperation between scientists and government bodies. However, lately what we have been seeing instead is that innovation and creativity are valued only when it comes to outpacing competing economies, and much less so in the interest of policies that affect our daily lives. One obvious example of this is the climate change debate, and the ever-growing divide we see between the government entities that determine how we can combat climate change, and the climate change researchers telling us how to do it. So when it comes to using science in the policy-making process, how can science counselling play a stronger role?
One major way in which science counselling can be enhanced is by considering the needs of a political audience when delivering their message. When using science to inform policy, information cannot be shared in the same way as it is with a scientific audience. Scientists are encouraged to enter their research without any pre-conceived biases or values, and are expected to follow a predetermined methodology and remain consistent among experiments. However, policy makers have a very different job, one that requires them to use biases and flexibility in their methodology. Thus, we cannot expect facts alone to be enough to inform policy. For example, conservative government bodies are often seen as “anti-science” when it comes to climate change, since the big government changes required to combat climate change are not usually in line with the values and interests espoused by party members. Particularly in North America, this is due to the deep ties between the fossil fuel industry and fiscal conservatism. As such, the American republican party consistently opposes the recently proposed Green New Deal which aims to tackle greenhouse gas emissions using sustainable fuel sources, by claiming that it is “outrageously expensive and cost prohibitive”. On the other hand, big changes such as cutting subsidies for fossil fuels, lowering taxes for low-carbon technologies and banning one-time use plastics are often in line with the values of more liberal governments, putting them on the “pro-science” side of the climate change debate. Thus, science counselors to the government bear the responsibility of aiding evidence-based decision making, while considering the differences between the two roles. This means climate change researchers must present the scientific facts to policy makers in a way that takes into account the values and biases espoused by each side. For example, conservative governments tend to focus on how climate change affects the economy in terms of the stock market, while more liberal governments might be inclined to deal with the relationship between climate change, and economic and housing inequality.
In addition to effective communication, science counsellors in government must consider the importance of reaching a consensus among scientists themselves. Particularly in the climate change debate, we see scientific input from geologists, biologists, chemists and environmentalists, to name a few. However, to the lay audience, there is simply too much information to not only digest, but also to integrate so that the scientific facts can be used to inform daily life. Thus it is the responsibility of chief scientists in the field to synthesize evidence coming from all relevant fields in order to build a scientific consensus, which can be used to then influence political policy. This is one of the core missions of the Canadian Climate Forum (CCF), which is a national non-partisan organization which aims to integrate scientific information coming from a variety of climate change researchers and use this evidence-based knowledge to “advance decision making for a more sustainable Canada”. Following new mandates, the CCF has been very involved in the science-policy interface and has used their scientific expertise to influence the establishment of a variety of evidence-based climate related policies. With the help of the CCF, over $76 million has been raised towards research on climate, atmospheric science and greenhouse gas emissions.
Lastly, science counsellors can play a stronger role in the political process by bridging the gap between policy makers and the public. This is necessary in order for science education as well as evidence-based decision making to be possible. The Canadian government has worked to accomplish this through the use of the Science and Technology Awareness Network (STAN). This is a national non-profit network open to all scientists and organizations, whose goal is to improve science and technology literacy among Canadians: a major focus of their work involves the public school system, meaning they work to encourage students to ask questions and participate in evidence-based problem-solving. In the 17 years since its founding, STAN has grown from a provincial to a national network, and has given hundreds of scientists a platform for professional development as well as taught thousands of Canadians how to be literate citizens. For instance, STAN has been running webinars focused on teaching young scientists about best practices and networking within the scientific community since 2018. STAN is just one example of the many ways in which government support of scientific research can enhance public knowledge of the scientific process, which in turn makes it easier for the government to implement changes to public policy.
Without science influencing policy, we lose our ability to progress in our daily lives. However, there are many more moving pieces in this world beyond scientific discoveries. Thanks to science counselling, we can integrate science into the decisions being made in our complex world, which has undoubtedly had significant impact on our lives.
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Xu, H., Turnquist, H.R., Hoffman, R. et al. Role of the IL-33-ST2 axis in sepsis. Military Med Res 4, 3 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40779-017-0115-8
Winchester, D.E., Bolanos, A.J., Wokhlu, A. et al. Revascularization and outcomes in Veterans with moderate to severe ischemia on myocardial perfusion imaging. Military Med Res 4, 12 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40779-017-0121-x
Shi, N., Li, N., Duan, X. et al. Interaction between the gut microbiome and mucosal immune system. Military Med Res 4, 14 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40779-017-0122-9
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