With very few academics involved in science policy advising, it remains a lesser known avenue for leveraging one’s knowledge. At last year’s Canadian Science Policy Conference, Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ) brought together a few academics who have embraced policy engagement as an aspect of their scientific work.
The five speakers, who have a broad mix of experience, shared their thoughts on how to best encourage the next generation of academics to explore the world of scientific policy-making. When asked what emerging? Inexperienced? New? academics need to know before they launch into meaningful policy conversations, they offered a few words of advice:
1. Time frames
Amélie Quesnel-Vallée is the Canada Research Chair in policies and health inequalities at McGill University, where she is a professor in the department of sociology as well as the department of epidemiology. She cautions that the academic and political spheres don’t necessarily move at the same pace. “It’s important to realize that the timelines for research and policy-making aren’t aligned. They move at different speeds, which can vary on both sides.”
Academics tend to have more leeway to move forward – for example, when a project doesn’t require extensive resources to get off the ground – while decision-making tends to take longer on the policy side. But she feels the opposite is true when it comes to policy advice: policymakers are eager to see recommendations right away, whereas academics tend to want to explore the options before weighing in.
For Pier-André Bouchard St-Amant, professor of public finance at École nationale d’administration publique, developing evidence-based policies means working as a team. While some academics may welcome this opportunity, he said you also have to accept that “some of the ideas you feel strongly about won’t make it in the end.” That can be a hard pill to swallow when you’re an expert in a certain field or typically work on issues with a narrow, specific focus. “It can take time to get used to that on a personal or emotional level, so being able to work as a team is really important.”
Dr. Bouchard St-Amant’s advises newcomers to “learn to approach certain topics with detachment,” even if it’s an issue you have a solution for because you’ve been working on it for years and are emotionally invested in the outcome. If you can’t be objective, it may be better to consider letting a colleague step in.
3. Policy takes precedence
Pauline Pic, a postdoctoral fellow for the Canada Research Chair in international political economy, believes young researchers interested in policy often overlook the fact that scientific policy is, first and foremost, policy. “Science isn’t the only data that policymakers need and it’s not the only information they use to make a decision.”
She also encouraged academics not to get discouraged if their ideas don’t make the cut. “Just because you feel unheard doesn’t mean your input won’t eventually inform policy in other ways,” she said.
4. Governance hierarchy
Having worked with various local and national organizations, Jérôme Marty, executive director of the International Association for Great Lakes Research and former project director at the Council of Canadian Academies said that most decisions made in society don’t require the involvement of high levels of governance. “Most decisions are made in organizations, in research groups or at the university.” Dr. Marty said contributing at lower levels of governance, however, has benefits for graduate students and recent grads interested in policy-making. “When you graduate, you’re a specialist in your field of study and the ability to make decisions [locally] is probably closer to your expertise, whereas that’s not the case when you’re contributing to decision-making at a higher level.”
5. Embracing your expertise
Simone Têtu has been a member of the FRQ Intersectoral Student Committee since 2020. Ms. Têtu is pursuing a bachelor’s in mathematics and physics at McGill, and is new to public policy development. While she acknowledged that it can be hard to join teams that collaborate with higher-level decision-makers, she also feels strongly that there are “issues where students can be the experts in the room – like student-related problems.” She encouraged her peers to learn to trust their capabilities. “There are things we should take pride in being knowledgeable about. It has great value and may motivate the next generation to get involved in scientific policy.”