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Missed CSPC’s The Promise of Science session? Here are some key take-aways.

(Guest post by Farah Qaiser , a graduate student at the University of Toronto, freelance science writer, and Subject Editor with Science Borealis.)
                                                        CSPC Agenda image

Last week, the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) returned once again to Ottawa to explore the theme of building bridges between science, policy and society. In this blog post, I’ll highlight one of the sessions that particularly stood out to me, titled the 'Promise of Science and Its implications for Science Policy'.

To set the context, Dr. Amy Lemay (of VISTA Science & Technology) referenced her doctoral thesis and explained that when we say the word science, we think of many things, including a product of research, a systematic method of inquiry, and a social institution. In each case, it is the promise of science – the belief that investments in science will lead to advances and resulting socio-economic impacts – which drives the decisions to invest public tax dollars and resources in scientific research. But science has also failed to live up to our expectations. This presents a paradox. And so, Lemay asked: what does the promise of science mean to you – and what do you believe are the implications of the promise of science for science policy?

To answer this, there were four invited speakers: Dr. Rob Annan (Genome Canada’s incoming President and CEO), Dr. Alice Cohen (Associate Professor, Acadia University), Ivan Semeniuk (Globe & Mail’s science reporter) and Sally Greenwood (Genome BC’s VP of Communications and Societal Engagement). But what made this session particularly unique was its open fishbowl format. Here, a fishbowl refers to chairs being arranged in an inner circle (the fishbowl), where any audience member can join the fishbowl and replace a speaker, allowing for different perspectives to be shared.

To kick off the conversation, Annan pointed out that all policy is driven by the promise of what is to come, and shared the example of the Human Genome Project (HGP). Sequencing the entire human genome was believed to reveal the ‘blueprint’ of life, but instead, it revealed more questions and led to the development of gene editing techniques, like CRISPR, and exploring unknowns like the microbiome. Some may think that the HGP promise went unfulfilled, but it also opened doors for future work.

Gradually, the invited speakers were replaced one by one with audience members of varying backgrounds, including a daughter of anti-vaxxer parents, an immigrant, an Indigenous scientist and even at one point, CIFAR president, Dr. Alan Bernstein. Here, the conversation ranged from citizen science, the need for science communication, to the issue of researchers being pressured to publish positive results rather than sharing null or negative data. In fact, in response to an audience member saying that it is the fault of policymakers when science isn’t acted upon, I joined the fishbowl to point out it’s a collective failure – science is locked behind paywalls, and simply publishing our research doesn’t mean that policy-makers will immediately make use of the evidence.

Perhaps the key moment in this session was when Ryerson University’s Dr. Imogen Coe pointed out that we need to take care when we say “listen to the scientists” as we have to be aware of who is in the room…and who isn’t.

“The promise of science depends on who you are, what your privilege is, and what the colour of your skin is. [...] the promise of science will only be met if we do better science,' said Coe.

Missed CSPC’s The Promise of Science session? Here are some key take-aways.

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