Welcome to the rebooted science interview series here at Confessions of a Science Librarian! The previous incarnation mostly concentrated on people in the broadly defined scholarly communications community, like Mark Patterson of eLife, Peter Binfield and Jason Hoyt of PeerJ or author Michael Nielsen.

The series has been extremely irregular for the last few years so I thought my more recent involvement with Canadian science policy advocacy presented an interesting opportunity to start over. In particular, my participation in the recent iPolitics science policy series presented itself as a amazing chance to tap into a wonderful pool of science policy advocates and see what they think about the current situation in Canada.

So what I’ve done is invite each of the authors from that series to respond to the same set of email interview questions with the idea that I would publish their exact responses here.

Over the next month or two I will be publishing the interviews from those that have agreed to participate. Once a few of those are up, I plan to widen the field and invite a broader range of Canadian science policy advocates to join the fray.

Suggestions of interview participants are more than welcome. Please feel free to email suggestions to jdupuis at yorku dot ca.

Paul Dufour, principal of science and technology consulting firm PaulicyWorks and Fellow and Adjunct Professor with the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa is today’s subject. His articles in the the iPolicy series are Let Canadian science off the leash and, with Scott Findlay, Why Canada needs a science watchdog.

Previous subjects include: University of Toronto Ph.D. candidate Dak de Kerckhove and University of Toronto historian of science Jonathan Turner.

Enjoy!

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Q1. Could you tell us a little bit about your scientific/technical/journalistic/political background and how you ended up involved in science advocacy? How do you define advocacy and what’s been the focus of your advocacy activities?

I am a self-professed science policy junkie. I got hooked early on with my studies at McGill, Concordia (science and human affairs), and Université de Montréal (Institut d’histoire et de sociopolitique des sciences). The latter was great fun since I was exposed to all of the leading thinkers in science and tech policy of the late 70s when science policy was emerging as a field (de Solla Price — who probably gave the best course I have ever taken, King, Rose and Rose, Brooks, Freeman, Landes, Kuhn, Gibbons, Salomon, Ben-David, Schroeder, Rosenberg, Sabato, Niosi, etc..).

I was lucky — out of UdeM, I got a job offer to work at the Science Council of Canada and never really looked back doing stints at virtually every organization that did science policy including working for and with several ministers of science (and we have had some good ones in the past) while also developing an expertise in international science relations with DFAIT and IDRC (science counselors, IIASA, APEC, NAFTA, Commonwealth science, OECD, etc.) .

As a result, I am an unusual hybrid that has both an academic and actual policy-making background in this area (e.g.; I helped with the development of the Canada’s first and only National S&T Policy in 1986-87 under Mulroney, the Chretien S-T-I policies of 1996 and 2002; shaped science advice with the ACST and CSTA; worked to ensure a sound platform for the IPY, and kept the the creation of the CCA alive through its various iterations, and of course, articled with the National Science Adviser — Dr. Carty — from 2005-2008). I also have an unusual ability to close down places wherever I go — so a word to the wise!

That said, I am quite familiar with advocacy in its many forms — from lobby groups looking for more money (AUCC was especially good at this as were several university presidents, and someone by the name of Howard Burton who almost single-handedly got the federal funding for the Mike Lazaridis Perimeter Institute in Waterloo- see his great book First Principles) to international pressure for Canada to join science-research clubs (the many Carnegie Group meetings of the G8 science ministers and advisers I had the privilege of attending were particularly useful on this front). I have also been quite keen to support efforts on research capacity building in Africa and other developing regions, hence my continued role on the evaluation committees of Grand Challenges Canada and ISTPCanada for example.
 

Q2. The Conservative Government’s science policies since 2006 have been pretty controversial and hotly contested. What do you think has been the most damaging thing that they’ve done?

This is a tough question…all governments screw up at some point or other, but this one seems to take the cake (and I have tasted a lot of cakes!). In several respects, the Harper regime is a bit of a retro one harkening back to the US Bush Jr. days when elites/scholars were not to be trusted and ideology was the ruling paradigm. Clearly, the inability of the Harper apparatchik to recognize the value of evidence in decision-making has been problematic, if not willfully blind. The StatsCan cuts, the elimination of the NSA and NRTEE, the crime bills and gun registry policies will prove to be detrimental in the long run and will no doubt hamper effective decision-making in future governments on behalf of Canadians. But I have learned that governments come and go and pendulums do swing back.
 

Q3. The conservative response to a lot of the activism that’s happened over the last few years has basically been to affirm that the Harper government has increased overall funding for science and that what some have called muzzling is really just management asserting its right to control what their employees communicate to the media. How do you respond to this?

Governments are in the business of controlling information –it is bred in their bones as Frye would say. But what this government has yet to learn is that in a social media world, it is no longer possible to manage and massage all messaging (see Snowden and Assange on this). The reaction to the muzzling issue has been poorly handled to say the least with the result that Canada’s once respected science image globally has suffered. A simple remedy (at little cost) would have been for the Harperites to issue a public statement with guidelines for the scientist-media interface respecting the usual government protocols all the while understanding that stuff has to get out in a timely fashion and that government scientists can speak to their area of expertise. The CSTA had a Cabinet-approved set of guidelines on this during the Chretien years — it would be a simple matter to revive and adapt these and a lot of the angst around the “big chill” could be addressed — at least within the government. Whether this would adequately address the damage done elsewhere is another matter.

As for the the increased funding argument, it is a specious one…stats are always selective and usually out of date…for example, Canada is now below Ireland, Australia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic in its GERD/GDP ratio…and ranks 21st overall globally — you won’t see this on any Harper Government communiques.
 

Q4. When the next government comes in, they will effectively have a kind of science blank slate to work with. What do you think are some policies the next government should focus on to rebuild their science and technology activities and infrastructure?

No incoming government has a blank slate — they are all saddled with stuff from previous regimes. Clearly, the fear factor that has impacted our government science apparatus and its scientists will take some time to overcome with a more meaningful recognition of public good science in the national innovation eco-system; and the “prudential acquiesence” of our science and business leadership who have stood by without speaking out for fear of more cuts will have to be addressed with a more propitious environment and less politically-driven appointments. An actual longer-term vision of why science and innovation matter to economy and society will need to be articulated and Canada’s standing abroad as a real player must be aggressively developed to overcome the dubious Fossils of the Year distinctions.

Yet another vapid federal STI strategy now being trundled out with limited consultations and no sense of urgency will not cut it…close collaboration with provinces, territories and municipalities where the action is will be required if Canada is to move forward and “seize the moment” of our 150th anniversary.
 

Q5. In the meantime, there’s lots of work to be done. But many in the science community shy away from overt political activity as it relates to their work. How would you convince skeptical but interested scientists to get involved with advocacy? And what do you think would be the most effective way for them to channel their energies?

I have laid out some suggestions on advocacy in various opinion pieces for Research Money, The Hill Times and iPolitics. I am heartened by new science advocacy movements we have never seen before in Canada. Evidence for Democracy, PIPS, Association science et bien commun, the ELA advocacy and other groups that have mobilized to make the case for public science and evidence in public policy…they are to be commended.

I believe the scientific, health and engineering communities in this country are awakening to their political advocacy potential — they just need a bit more guidance to make more meaningful policy impact (which is why I teach science policy 101 to our next generation science students). The recent NDP motion to create a Parliamentary Science Officer is a helpful step to get a debate going with our elected representatives. There are other exciting ventures out there like Startup Canada, Science Media Centre, the McGill Science & Policy Exchange, and the College of New Artists, Scholars and Scientists that show the willingness and ability of our youth to take up new challenges for Canada’s knowledge frontiers…These should all be encouraged.

It should also be kept in mind that science policy is ultimately social science and our scientific community with these other knowledge sectors need to work together more — see the ISSP Decalogue for more on this.

Above all and despite recent press coverage, I am convinced public service remains a worthwhile vocation in this country — and science is a critical handmaiden to our democracy, nation-building and culture. Our scientists should try to engage more actively as citizens in this process; there are some great role models out there!! And please celebrate our science contributions past, present and future!

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