Our discussions over the course of the conference included the importance of using science diplomacy as a way to build bridges between countries; the importance of including and emphasizing diverse voices in science policy; the increasing need for scientific communicant strategies and outreach to the public; the historical background of U.S.-Canada scientific partnerships; and an overview of the Canadian science, technology, and innovation landscape. It was enriching to interact with senior leaders in the Canadian science policy space, and I learned a great deal about providing scientific advice that I will use throughout my academic and professional career.
I was honoured to provide brief remarks following Dr. Nemer’s keynote on The Complex Role of Science Advice in Informing Policy. She provided an invaluable perspective as the Canadian Chief Science Advisor throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The following is an adaptation of my remarks.
My name is Ruth Cooper, and I am a master’s student at George Washington University studying International Science and Technology Policy. I also work at the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine in the Health and Medicine Division. I’d like to thank both GW and the National Academies for supporting me to attend this conference.
I’m especially excited to be here as Canada holds a special place in my heart. I have family in Montreal that I’m planning to see after this conference for this first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Additionally, I was lucky enough to be able to help with oceanographic field work on the Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker, the Sir Wilfrid Laurier, with a team of U.S. and Canadian scientists in 2018. This research cruise was part of the Distributed Biological Observatory, which is an example of successful international science collaboration. Since 2010, an international team of scientists—including from the U.S., Canada, China, Japan, Korea, and Russia—have been collecting samples and data at the same locations in the Arctic at different times of the year so that there is a coordinated, consistent time series of data that can be used to evaluate climate change impacts in the Arctic. The entire world benefits greatly from bilateral and multilateral collaborations like this.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a different kind of global challenge where international science cooperation is critical. The entire world has grappled with the pandemic for the past two years and scientists are continuing to collaborate with their international colleagues at unprecedented levels, working to better understand the virus and its variants, and to develop effective treatments and vaccines. The pandemic has also shown how science can inform policy. In the best of circumstances, scientific advice has been able to take center stage.
While it has been wonderful to see the pivotal role scientists have played in responding to the pandemic, there are inherent conflicts between scientists and policymakers that, in practice, often complicate the implementation of scientific advice into effective policy. One reason is value systems. Historically, scientists want to understand something for the sake of understanding. But the policymaker has a much more utilitarian approach. They need to create polices that produce the best outcomes for the most people. Timescales can also be an issue with scientific advice. Science generally takes a long time, while policy decisions, particularly in crises like the pandemic, must be made in as little as a few days. A final conflict that was very apparent throughout the pandemic response is that scientists and policymakers, as well as the public, deal with uncertainty in very different ways. Scientists are comfortable with it, as measuring uncertainty is part of the scientific process, while policymakers would prefer the concrete, correct answer as soon as possible. Ideally, scientific advice should be based on best available evidence, though in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the evidence has been uncertain, rapidly evolving, and involved considerable unknowns
The urgent and short timeframes needed for COVID-19 decisions have conflicted with the much longer timeframes needed for fully developed and robust scientific findings. The science that informed policy responses was initially incomplete and conditional. As more data are collected, the science can change, and policies need to be flexible enough to change as well. In such a dynamic situation, when policymakers and the public want assurance and certainty, this can become a real challenge for the scientific community. When providing science advice for policy, transparency, openness, and strong communication strategies are critical to maintain trust in both science and policy, so that the public will be able to accept, understand, and follow these evidence-based policies. Scientists and policymakers need to be able to justify their advice and decisions in understandable language to have the most impact.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic showed that countries often initially respond to global challenges by first focusing on their own countries, as opposed to engaging in multilateral efforts. For example, the United States’ initial reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic included withdrawing from the World Health Organization. But international engagement is critical and I’m thrilled to see more recent U.S. policies that emphasize international cooperation and science diplomacy.
Thank you again for the opportunity to highlight my response to Dr. Nemer’s excellent presentation at the Bromley Memorial Event, which is so important in commemorating the contributions of Dr. Bromley to the scientific enterprise and science policy in both Canada and the United States.