Reliable Science Informing Decisions

4 minute read

By Jeff Kinder – Executive Director, Science and Innovation and Rhonda Moore – Senior Advisor, Science and Innovation

In the waning months of the Second World War, U.S. President Roosevelt asked his science advisor to prepare recommendations on how the nation could continue to benefit in peacetime from the mobilization of the scientific community that had so clearly aided the war effort. Dr. Vannevar Bush submitted his famous report, Science: The Endless Frontier, to President Truman in July 1945 following Roosevelt’s untimely death. Bush positioned science as an endless frontier of knowledge and innovation that could support economic prosperity, public health, and security.

The report advanced a new “social contract,” or basic compact between science and society in which society agrees to provide public funding to support the advancement of science in exchange for the benefits that flow from the scientific enterprise. Importantly, the report argued that to ensure this flow of benefits, science requires a high degree of autonomy in setting research priorities, selecting researchers for funding, and evaluating results. The tenets of the Bush report were later promulgated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and others with the result that this basic compact has guided the relationship between science and society throughout the world, including in Canada.

Decades later, governments are still committed to making decisions based on evidence. In Canada, former Governor General David Johnston observed in 2012 that “…We live in a time of rapid transformations, characterized by risk and opportunity on a global scale. Because of this, we must always look to the evidence – particularly scientific evidence – to help navigate change and inform our choices.” As well, in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that “…We are a government that believes in science – and that good scientific knowledge should inform decision-making.”

Yet the social contract between science and society is under strain. The rise of “junk science,” a decline of trust in public institutions, and the promulgation of “fake news” and “alternative facts” challenge scientific evidence and the integrity of the scientific process. Recent reports of scientific misconduct allege flawed studies, fabricated data, and conflicts of interest in advancing particular agendas. The traditional process for communicating knowledge is being disrupted. Along with the generally positive move to open science, we are seeing the rise of “predatory publishers” whose lax review methods have led to more dubious claims in the scientific literature. While the scientific community continues to argue for autonomy, the public is seeking greater accountability, especially given the large expenditures of public funding in support of research.

In this “post-truth” era, the scientific community needs to work harder to find ways of communicating reliable knowledge. It is too easy, and not persuasive, to suggest that we simply need to raise the level of scientific literacy in society. Climate change hoaxers and anti-vaxxers will not be persuaded by more evidence provided by expert scientists. As science has become more and more specialized and complex, it is increasingly regarded as unapproachable, confusing, intimidating, and elitist.

Science is one input to policy among many, falling alongside economic, political, legal, and diplomatic considerations, among others. Science is the study of the natural world, from large scale systems (e.g., the solar system, the global climate system, the migratory patterns of living things) to forces at the sub-atomic level. Science can tell us how things work and sometimes why they happen. The social sciences can tell us how humans interact with the natural world, with each other, as well as shed light on why we act and express ourselves the way we do.

As a body of knowledge, science has a lot to offer decision-makers. Equally important for its role in decision-making is its particular method of discovering and ascertaining reliable knowledge. Sound science is characterized by a healthy skepticism to new knowledge claims and by the ability to replicate results by repeating experiments when conditions and variables are controlled. Claims of new scientific knowledge are submitted to a process of peer review in which results are evaluated and commented on by other experts in the field. New results are tested by scientists and by upcoming students to ensure that they can be replicated [anecdote from Jeff: in 1987, I remember how the breakthroughs in high-temperature superconductivity were quickly introduced into my undergraduate physics curriculum allowing us to test and replicate the results in the lab]. The scientific method does not guarantee error-free knowledge, and the knowledge always remains open to challenge in the face of new evidence.

We need to rethink the scientific social contract for the 21st century, to find new ways to renew the relationship while ensuring that science is serving society with integrity. There are important experiments underway in responsible research, inclusive innovation, and citizen science. Governments need to push harder on open science and open science advice. As we look ahead to the federal election, there is an important opportunity to engage in a broad discussion on the role of science in society and the role of reliable scientific knowledge in informing our public choices.

About the author

Jeff Kinder

Jeff Kinder

Executive Director - Science and Innovation

Jeff has almost 30 years of experience in government science and innovation policy in the US and Canada. His US experience includes the National Science Foundation, the National Academies and the Naval Research Laboratory.

In Canada, Jeff has worked at Industry Canada, Natural Resources Canada and the Council of Science and Technology Advisors. Most recently, he led the Federal Science and Technology Secretariat supporting the Minister of Science, the Deputy Minister Champion for Federal S&T and related initiatives.

Jeff is author of Government Science 2020: Re-thinking Public Science in a Networked Age and co-author with Bruce Doern of Strategic Science in the Public Interest: Canada’s Government Laboratories and Science-Based Agencies (U. Toronto Press, 2007). He is author and co-editor with Paul Dufour of a forthcoming volume on the history of the Science Council of Canada. He holds a PhD in public policy, a Master’s in science, technology and public policy, and a BS in physics.

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