25 Feb 2021   |   News

Science advice for policy is here to stay

COVID-19 has brought science to the forefront of policymaking around the world, and science advisers have become minor celebrities. Now, the public demands the experts are consulted, says Canada’s chief science adviser

Mona Nemer

Canada’s chief science adviser Mona Nemer.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought scientific advice to the forefront of policymaking. We must build on this relationship to maintain trust between scientists, politicians and the public, says Canada‘s chief scientist, Mona Nemer.

“This is an incredibly important time for science to be impacting and influencing our policies and our future,” Nemer told a Science|Business conference this week. “Understanding this developing dynamic, I think we can actually do a lot to move this forward in a very sustainable manner, developing this trustworthy relationship between science and politicians, but also with the public.”

In 2020, dealing with the deadly COVID-19 virus, flustered governments turned to scientists for advice on how to manage the pandemic. Chief scientists in countries around the world could be seen on the news explaining their recommendations and communicating new guidelines. Even in countries where trust in experts has been undermined in recent years, policymakers have relied on scientists to steer a route through the crisis, and to provide them with cover for unpopular lockdown measures.

Nemer believes the demand for science advice in policymaking will continue growing. For one, the public now demands it. People are no longer content with being told what to do without clear reasons why; they want to understand the basis, the data and the evidence behind the decisions. During the crisis, “all this has been put in the public eye like never before, and now the public is demanding more information,” she said.

To make this new relationship work science literacy must be fostered in both citizens and policymakers. Science is not omniscient, and policymakers and citizens need to be aware of its limitations. “I hope we can build on this to maintain the relationship, certainly in Canada, that we have developed between scientists and policymakers,” said Nemer. That way, when the next crisis comes, the relationship does not have to be forced under pressure.

Science advice should also maintain its newly found international dimension. The pandemic made science advice a global endeavour. As a chief scientist, Nemer said she relied on data from around the world to inform the Canadian government on the best course of action.

The high visibility of COVID-19 control measures also meant governments were kept accountable for their policies. If wearing masks was made mandatory in one country, another country’s no-mask approach had to be explained, said Nemer. Sweden, notably, received significant attention for its –science-driven – policy not to impose a national lockdown.

“I think what this pandemic has taught us is the critical importance of maintaining connectivity in terms of both science, research, development, but also science advice,” said Nemer.

Cooperation with the EU

Canada is a candidate to become a Horizon Europe associated country. When and on what terms this would happen is still largely unclear. We are waiting for Commission guidance “in terms of what association can look like,” said Nemer.

However, there is clearly interest in Canada being associated on both sides. In a separate discussion, Simona Kustec, Slovenia’s education and science minister, said that Canada, together with Australia and the US, is one of the EU’s ‘dream’ research partners. “Having them as full partners on equal footing with other EU member states, that would be my dream to come true,” she said.

In the past, Canadian researchers have been involved in individual projects funded by the EU R&D programmes, but has never had an association agreement. Science and research are also part of Canada’s free trade deal with the EU.

The prospects for closer research cooperation appear to be promising. The EU and Canada have similar goals in fighting climate change and developing clean technology, with both striving for climate neutrality by 2050.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a positive impact on the willingness to cooperate, according to Nemer. “The pandemic has shined light on the importance of finding mechanisms that would be both effective and agile for collaboration on an ongoing basis,” she said.

Horizon Europe may well be a mechanism enabling long-term collaboration. “To my knowledge, the importance [for] Canada [of] working with the EU in the context of Horizon Europe has not diminished. On the contrary, we’ve seen the importance [of] working together to speed [up] finding solutions to complex problems,” Nemer said. “Today, it’s a pandemic, tomorrow maybe an environmental crisis. Plus, we don’t need to wait for a crisis to be working together.”

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