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Mitacs fellows pursue science policy in the halls of government

Eleven PhD grads are serving for one year in various federal departments around Ottawa.


For more than 40 years, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has maintained a program that creates temporary placements each year for hundreds of scientists and engineers in various parts of the U.S. federal government. Some of these individuals find permanent careers in the public service while others pursue opportunities elsewhere, but together they now form an extensive network that bridges the insular world of academic policy studies with the equally insular world of government policy-making.

A similar initiative has now been established in Canada by Mitacs, a not-for-profit agency dedicated to research and training that was originally established in the late 1990s as a Network of Centres of Excellence. Last fall, a group of 11 Science Policy Fellows from diverse backgrounds were installed for one year in various federal departments around Ottawa, where they have been learning about how scientific principles and evidence make their way through the machinery of government.

The Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellows – including (left to right) Kimberly Girling, Joelle Thorpe and Aaron Franks – met with federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan in October. Photo by Mitacs.

Among the prime movers of this initiative was University of British Columbia zoology professor Sally Otto, who had won a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2011. The award left her free to steer $100,000 of that funding as seed money to start the fellowship program, a venture that reflected her desire to offer science students a broader range of perspectives and career prospects.

“As educators, we love to empower and see people succeed,” she said, noting that many individuals with an interest in public policy simply do not know how to get involved in this field. According to Gail Bowkett, director of innovation policy at Mitacs, the program generated immediate buzz after it was launched at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in the fall of 2015.

“It was met with a lot of enthusiasm by various federal government departments and the academic community,” she recalled. By the time applications for the fellowships were accepted last spring, the organizers found themselves choosing from dozens of highly qualified candidates with a wide range of interests and backgrounds. All the selected individuals have PhDs, in fields ranging from neuroendocrinology to political science; most of them had also acquired some practical experience by working with organizations trying to shape public policy at a grassroots level.

For example, fellowship holder Marie Claire Brisbois, who is placed within Natural Resources Canada, was an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo’s school of environment, resources and sustainability and has also worked with the Sierra Club of Canada on issues surrounding environmental education in Canada. She also did an internship with the former Canadian International Development Agency to examine access to water in Latin America.

Dr. Brisbois is currently examining the role of open data in policy development, which she said is essential to making policy as transparent as possible. “This is vital to establishing public confidence in environmental assessment,” she said, adding that it is likewise essential to capturing the full scope of a policy challenge. Although specific scientific insights or technological innovations might address a particular problem, such as securing a safe water supply for remote communities, that technical solution may not address social, economic or regulatory obstacles that remain, she explained.

For Pierre-Olivier Bédard, who earned a PhD in political science at Université Laval and is currently a fellow at Global Affairs Canada, the Mitacs program has offered him an opportunity to attain this larger view of policy. “You can spend so many years thinking about public administration and government and not knowing exactly what it is on the ground,” he said. “This has allowed me to learn what it means to work in government and what it means to plan and discuss projects.”

Both Drs. Bédard and Brisbois see themselves moving back into some kind of academic setting when their postings conclude in September, but some host departments could well create an ongoing position for other fellows.

“We looked at the program as a potential mechanism to screen candidates for hiring,” said Loren Matheson, a science and technology adviser in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. She said the Mitacs program highlighted some of the outstanding talent that was available in Canada – and in a manner that was much more efficient than a traditional open job competition would have done.

Ms. Bowkett agreed, referring to the longstanding example provided by the AAAS program in the U.S. Mitacs is also working closely with the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy to supplement the activities of the fellows with guest speakers and workshops.

“There’s a great sense of camaraderie within the group,” she said, stressing that this is just the first iteration of a long-term venture. “It’s an amazing opportunity for the fellows, it’s a great opportunity for the government departments that are involved, but we hope to build on what we have and improve it over the years.”

Kimberly Girling, who defended her PhD in neuroscience from UBC just as she was taking a fellowship at Defence Research and Development Canada, said the work complements an interest in policy that grew steadily for her throughout her academic career.

“There are no obvious routes for scientists to become involved in policy,” she explained, pointing to the example of researchers like her working on the discovery and development of new drugs. Few of these investigators, she said, have a full appreciation of the complex process that turns this science into approved medicines. “I felt this responsibility as someone who has scientific training and who is really well versed in that scientific world to use that knowledge and make sure that decision-makers and the public are well informed about science, and that evidence is making its way into policy-making.”

Alexandra Mallett had already been engaged in such efforts as an assistant professor in Carleton University’s school of public policy and administration, where she guides engineering students through the policy implications of their chosen careers. She took on a Mitacs fellowship with Natural Resources Canada as a way of informing her ongoing teaching work with practical experience such as contributing to briefing materials for a cabinet minister. “At the end of the day,” she said, “if we really want to make an impact, we have to get beyond the classroom and outside of our research comfort zone.”

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