Canada needs a new relationship with science and innovation that reflects our time

Institute for Science Society and Policy

By Rhonda Moore

Executive Director, Science and Innovation, Institute on Governance

Rhonda Moore
STEM building
Though many Canadians may not realize it, we live in a science-based society.

Science has – does – inform the structure of our government, the design of our primary, secondary and tertiary education systems, and it is the basis for sectors of our economy like energy and transportation. The origins of this relationship date back to the end of the second World War, at a time when science helped to “win the war”. There was an appetite for science to support advances in society, in peace time as it had during the war.

The desire to have science contribute to advance society in peacetime as it had during the war translated into a relationship (also referred to as a social contract or compact). The basic tenets of the relationship provided that government, on behalf of society, would fund science. In exchange, the scientific enterprise would be afforded a great deal of autonomy to address challenges facing society, returning to society the untold (and unpredictable) fruits of its labours. This relationship was negotiated at a time when there was a great deal of trust in science, and science became positioned as a source for knowledge with endless potential. Some scholars refer to those post-war years as the high water mark for trust in science.

Now, in 2022, many facets of the relationship between science and society is under strain. Public trust in science is in decline. Science is not seen to be serving all people equally, nor speaking the language of everyday people.

The relationship between science and society may no longer be fit for purpose in our contemporary Canadian society. And while the strains in this relationship have been growing over many years, they have become much more pronounced during the pandemic. When we talk about the changes to our lives brought about by the pandemic, it almost feels cliché to say we are living in a “new normal”. Except, we are.

We can think about the types of changes the pandemic brought about in three ways:

  • It catalyzed behaviours – working from home, online shopping, virtual medical appointments – that existing before the pandemic (but perhaps were not so common)
  • It amplified systemic issues, barriers and trends – such as social determinants of health for equity seeking groups, racism, fragile work arrangements, and a declining rate of trust in public institutions and in science – that existed before the pandemic
  • And it presented new information – about a novel corona virus and how to mitigate its spread – that challenged us, our community structures, and prompted new behaviours (lock-downs, masking, etc.).

As we come to terms with and work through changes brought about by the pandemic, it’s clear that in many cases, returning to our pre-pandemic ways is not an option. The relationship between science and society will not return to its pre-pandemic state. We need a relationship that is fit for purpose, that meets the needs of our contemporary society.  

Starting this month, Sandra Schillo, Jeff Kinder and I will be launching a partnership development grant Beyond Endless Frontiers. Our goal is to examine the existing contract that underpins Canada's scientific enterprise and explore the elements of a new policy framework. We will do this through a mix of policy research and roundtable discussions, and model new knowledge co-development approaches through a foresight and mapping exercise. With our team of partners, collaborators and advisors at the Belmont Forum, BHER, the Canadian Science Policy Centre, Genome Canada, Ingenium, McMaster University, the University of Manitoba, Optonique, the University of Ottawa, the University of Saskatchewan, and York University we are examining the current state of the relationship through six themes:

  • Inclusive Innovation. The postwar contract also saw no role for non-scientists in the scientific process, and innovation was a largely closed process. Growing interest in inclusive innovation suggests that broader participation in innovation will not only change who innovates, but what, how and why innovation occurs. A new contract must expand participation of historically underrepresented and disadvantaged groups (women, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community, Indigenous peoples) but also recognize the benefits that equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) bring to the process and outcomes of innovation and to the relationship between science and society.
  • Indigenous, and Other Ways of Knowing: The postwar contract privileged a Western science view of discipline-based approaches in the natural and biomedical sciences and engineering above the social sciences and humanities and other types of knowledge such as Indigenous Knowledge. Work conducted in this theme will seek to understand how different types of knowledge can be interwoven, and how to build respect for all cultures of knowledge. 
  • Mission-Directed Research and Innovation. The postwar contract refused scientific planning, and argued that society is best served through the free play of intellects to identify subjects to pursue. Yet, serendipity is not a strategy. A new contract should consider how to create the greatest possible compatibility between both the new knowledge that scientists create and the public’s capacity to assimilate it for society’s long-term benefit.
  • Science Communications, Outreach, and Public Engagement. The traditional education of scientists (affirmed by the postwar contract) continues to focus on the “publishing and distributing” findings in academic settings with little obligation or incentive to promote ideation, generation or sharing of knowledge outside of academia. We need to go beyond an interest in improving the “public understanding of science” to authentic engagement with society to a place where society plays an active role in identifying problems for sicence to undertake, and participates in the co-production of knowledge.
  • Skills and Knowledge. The postwar contract emphasized the need for generating highly trained personnel in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Those trained in STEM now increasingly require additional skillsets to successfully navigate today’s complex world. A new contract must seek to rebuild trust and understanding between science and society by providing scientists with the skillset to engage members of society in order to fulfil the full potential of science in partnership with society.
  • Trust, Integrity, and Science Ethics. The postwar contract argued that the science community’s internal control mechanisms (e.g., peer review) embody the principal ethical responsibilities of the system; any abuses are for the scientific community to address. However, public reporting of scientific misconduct continue to raise questions about the scientific community’s ability to police itself, and surveys suggest that the public believes scientists are not as ethical as they should be (3M 2019). The rise of anti-intellectual, populist sentiments and the declining trust in elite institutions demonstrate that, for many Canadians, the scientific enterprise does not represent them or their needs.