Collaboration is the way forward for the social sciences in policy making

June 8, 2017
Caleb Snider, Congress 2017 blogger

The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences brings together leading thinkers, academics, researchers, policy-makers, and innovators to explore some of the world’s most challenging issues. Congress celebrates the vitality and quality of Canadian research contributions and helps train the next generation of Canadian ideas leadership. This year’s theme “The Next 150, on Indigenous Lands” celebrates the history, legacy, and achievements of the peoples and territories that make us who we are, and anticipates the boundless opportunities of the future. Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, this year’s Congress is being hosted by Ryerson University in Toronto from May 27–June 2. Follow this series of Big Picture at #congressh blogs.

Two social scientists and one natural scientist working at the intersection of public policy and academic research spoke on the challenges of bridging the gap between academia and policy making in Critical outlook: Social sciences and humanities’ role in public policy making.

Marie Clair Brisbois, who began her academic career in the natural sciences and left academia to become an activist before returning to the academy as a social scientist, said that the push for fact-based policy developed using the scientific method is still nebulous. According to Brisbois, there is still a lack of awareness among policy makers that social sciences can inform the process of how policy is made as well as its content. The culture of bureaucracy in Canada makes it challenging to present science, but social science has the advantage of already looking at the greater context of politics, economics, and society that informs policy.

Aaron Franks, whose Métis ancestry informs his academic and policy work, outlined the triple role of social science in policy making. The social sciences interpret information with critical tools and quantitative measures, contributing to a process-oriented system of policy making that maintains relevance over time while retaining knowledge of our past. Social science also functions as a critical lens for looking at and changing systems and changing policies to account for the particular. Finally, it is important for educating the public and keeping spaces for public discussion and criticism open, active, and vibrant. According to Franks, the humanities are too often relegated to the role of helping scientists or social scientists present their knowledge and findings rather than being allowed to contribute critically themselves.

Donna Kirkwood brought the perspective of a natural scientist to the panel, having worked previously as a scholar, a professor, and now a policy maker all in the field of geology. According to Kirkwood, federal scientists work primarily to provide information of significant public interest in fields such as forestry or natural resources. They provide scientific advice for different public agencies, laws, and regulations. However, the context surrounding science in society is becoming more complex, and federal scientists have to develop new methods in order to keep up. Kirkwood said that Canada is strong in fundamental research, but weak in developing that research into marketable end products. Science-guided public policy needs to be produced for the public good and needs to be reformed by working together with the social sciences and humanities in a new trend of collaboration within the policy making community.

All of the panelists also agreed that there needs to be more collaboration with the public. Brisbois proposed that we need to start looking at different methods of governance and different knowledge centres in order to account for the increasingly complex contexts in which public policy is developed, and Kirkwood suggested that federal and public scientists need to come to grips with the reality that there is no absolute truth, even in the natural sciences.

Critical outlook: Social sciences and humanities’ role in public policy making featured Donna Kirkwood (chief scientist, Natural Resources Canada), Marie Claire Brisbois (Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellow, Natural Resources Canada), and Aaron Franks (Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellow, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) and was hosted by Mitacs at Congress 2017.