Science and Society are Inextricably Linked

For more than 75 years Canada, and other OECD member states, have used science as a building block for their societies and their economies. Science has delivered benefits to society through a process of knowledge creation, translation, mobilization, and adaptation. In the last 75 years, science has indeed contributed to economic growth, to social progress, and to our physical and mental wellbeing.

The origins of this relationship required society to support the production of science through public funding, granting the scientific community a great deal of autonomy, in exchange for the considerable but unpredictable benefits that can flow from the scientific enterprise. By trusting science’s self-governing processes, society would, in turn, benefit from the fruits of science’s labour.

Today, that relationship is under strain. Like every relationship, the tenets of trust and integrity are crucial to maintaining a healthy working relationship between science and society. This same trust and integrity contributes to a core principle of good governance: legitimacy. Legitimacy leads to a broad-based acceptance of science’s contributions. It is perhaps the most difficult yet most important good governance principle to measure.

In recent years Canadians have witnessed a proliferation of misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms and even in mainstream media. In this environment, the integrity and ethics of science and scientists are increasingly questioned and rejected. By extension, some Canadians have also begun to reject the role that science plays in society.

The divorce of society from science became more pronounced with the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic revealed the messy yet integral parts of the scientific process. It underlined that science revolves around both what we know and what we don’t know. By definition, it operates in a risky and uncertain environment. A lack of familiarity with the scientific process, such as determining how COVID-19 was spread and how newly developed vaccines could help, resulted in increased public skepticism about science at a time when reliance on scientific evidence and communication was, in fact, necessary to combat the virus.

Trust is a three-dimensional relationship that is based on integrity, dependability, and confidence. This is defined as a combination of trustfulness and trustworthiness. By comparison, scientific integrity is defined by enforcing norms and standards, rather than promoting idealized behaviours. The result leaves us with an ideal for measuring trust, and only vague notions of what scientific integrity isn’t.

Rebuilding a trusting relationship between science and society will require getting to know each other again. Now that science has pulled back the curtain on scientific uncertainty and the messiness of the process, it is time to learn from it and re-establish the good governance that goes with it.

Recognizing this imperative, the Institute on Governance led a two-year, collaborative research initiative with federal science and innovation departments and agencies called Government Science and Innovation in the New Normal (GSINN). It is in-depth examination of the evolving relationship between government science and innovation, and society. The first of ten papers has been released. Entitled Trust, Integrity and Science Ethics, it analyzes the relationship between public trust, the integrity of government science, and the key challenges that are re-shaping this relationship.

If Canada hopes to rise to the challenge of a future pandemic, understanding and reinforcing the science-trust-society relationship will be key.

To know more about GSINN or to read the full paper, please visit the GSINN initiative home page.

Rhonda Moore
Executive Director
Science and Innovation