Bridging science and policy: UBC scientists are building relationships with Canada’s political leaders

Canadian scientists are now in a better position reach the people who have the power to make a difference.

In November 2018, a group of Canada Research Chairs were privy to the inner workings of parliament through a new partnership program, Science Meets Parliament (SMP). This marks the first time in Canadian history that scientific delegates met directly with policy decision-makers.

Dr. Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, formed the SMP in partnership with the Canadian Science Policy Centre to create an open and ongoing channel between the science and policy communities. This program is a new approach to ensuring scientific evidence is considered when politicians and other policymakers make legislative decisions.

Effective collaboration requires strong communication between scientists and policymakers and the SMP has reciprocal benefits for both; it allows scientists to understand policy and political procedures and politicians are in a better position to engage directly with scientists.

Dr. Jiaying Zhao, Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Sustainability at UBC, was one of the 28 Canada Research Chairs (CRCs) who met with members of Parliament, Senators, and staff over two days in Ottawa.

“We gathered with no agenda, aside from the will to create change.”
Associate Professor, UBC Psychology and Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability

In addition to Zhao, the other UBC CRCs who attended are Dr. Cole Burton, Canada Research Chair in Terrestrial Mammal Conservation, Dr. Mary De Vera, Canada Research Chair in Medication Adherence, Utilization, and Outcomes, and Dr. Adam Ford, Canada Research Chair in Wildlife Restoration Ecology.

Zhao and the group of scientists from the inaugural event published their perspective on the meetings in Science and Policy.

In a Q&A, Zhao, who is lead author of the publication, summarizes their experiences, the benefits of the program, and how we can continue to build the science-policy relationship.

Why is it important that Canada has established its first Science Meets Parliament (SMP) model?

The SMP model serves as a bridge between Canadian scientists and parliamentarians to facilitate their communication, promote mutual understanding of the nature of their respective work, roles and responsibilities, and build mutually beneficial relationships. This model is a critical part of long-term communication between scientists and parliamentarians that facilitates incorporating science into the development of public policies to benefit the broader public. A key feature of this model is the absence of an “agenda” from either group (e.g., not seeking funding or advising on particular policy issues), which allows for a transparent and direct interaction free from potential conflict of interest.

What are your key observations of the SMP event?

On the first day, Dr. Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, shared her personal experience of facilitating interactions among scientists, politicians, and policymakers during a working lunch. We then attended a workshop to learn about the structure of the government and legislative process in Canada, and receive guidance from current and former MPs and Senators on how best to communicate our research with parliamentarians. On the second day, each scientist was paired with a number of MPs and Senators to shadow them during committee meetings, discuss a diverse range of policy issues, and discuss how science can be most useful to policymakers. We found that the parliamentarians were open to different ideas and embraced ideological differences, and many pairs were able to find forward-looking common ground through their discussions.

“We found that the parliamentarians were open to different ideas and embraced ideological differences, and many pairs were able to find forward-looking common ground through their discussions.”
Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Sustainability

What can scientists do to engage with the community—and policy makers?

Join future SMP events to meet with parliamentarians; hold lectures and workshops with local policymakers, practitioners, and the public to disseminate their work; email your MP to set up meetings to discuss how your work can help their policymaking; invite your MP to visit the university and meet with other scientists and students.

How could this affect the public or improve health and society?

There was no immediate impact on the public, but through events like SMP policymakers can directly learn about scientific evidence, get advice from experts, and use evidence to inform public policy that tackles issues on health and society.

What do you think the next step should be to continue to build the science-policy relationship?

The next step should be to hold the next SMP in 2020. It’s important to also set up a repository to track the scientists and parliamentarians who attended this event, any continued communications between the two groups after the event, and the impact of these communications. Funding from participating universities, tri-council agencies, or Canadian Science Policy Centre would be helpful to sustain these events.

Jiaying Zhao

Jiaying Zhao is the Canada Research Chair (t2) in Behavioral Sustainability, and an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC. She received her PhD in cognitive psychology from Princeton University in 2013. She is the principal investigator of the Behavioral Sustainability Lab at UBC. Her research aims to use psychological principles to design behavioral solutions to address sustainability challenges. Specifically, she examines how resource scarcity impacts human cognition and behavior and what interventions are effective at alleviating cognitive burdens in the poor; how to reduce water and energy consumption, encourage recycling and composting behavior, promote responsible carsharing behavior, and engage the public on biodiversity conservation; and what cognitive biases people have regarding climate change.