MANNING: Government focused on making ‘scientific’ decisions


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In the 21st century, the credibility and prestige of the scientific community continue to increase while that of the elected political community declines.

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Thus, the status of politicians, especially those of governments, is enhanced if they can claim to “follow the science”, for example, to deal with issues such as climate change and the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

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From November 16-18, hundreds of Canadian scientists will gather in Ottawa for the annual Canadian Science Policy Conference. And one of the most pertinent questions they could address is this: what are the minimum requirements that must be met for public policy to be truly science-based?

Politicians and public administrators tend to answer this question in a way that serves their political and administrative interests. But what is more important is the honest opinion of the scientific community itself as to the minimum requirements that must be met for public policy to be truly science-based.

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Suppose, for example, that the scientific community defines these minimum requirements as follows:

  1. That the scientific method must have been employed in the development of the policy.
  2. That the scope of the science invoked must have been sufficient – ​​broad and deep enough – to substantially shape policy.
  3. These alternative scientific hypotheses must have been welcomed and allowed to compete freely for application to policy.
  4. That knowledgeable scientists themselves, rather than ill-equipped third parties, must have been at the forefront of defining and explaining science to policy makers and the public.

Suppose further that to demonstrate the application of these minimum requirements to a real political situation, a panel of our scientists were to investigate the extent to which these minimum requirements were adhered to by Canadian authorities in the development and implementation implementation of their policy response to COVID-19. 19.

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This would involve, for example, investigating whether the scope of science relied on was broad and deep enough to ensure that these policies were truly science-based.


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Health authorities in Canada have said they rely most extensively and appropriately on the life sciences – biology, microbiology and especially medical sciences such as virology, epidemiology, immunology and genetic.

But the wider scientific community might then ask: what about other highly relevant scientific disciplines such as psychology, sociology, political science and economics? Have psychologists and sociologists, for example, been asked what the psychological and social impacts of prolonged social distancing or school lockdowns might be?

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Even when authorities claim that they relied most heavily on medical science, the wider scientific community might argue that medical science includes more branches than those most often referenced by authorities – branches particularly relevant to making in the face of the impacts of the health protection measures adopted.

Why, for example, does there seem to be so little expert consultation in psychology (mental health), gerontology (the health of the elderly) or pediatrics (medical care of infants, children, adolescents and young adults)? in the development and implementation of Canada’s response to COVID?

Ultimately, the broader scientific community may well conclude that the scope of science relied on by authorities to respond to COVID – 19 was too narrow – insufficient by itself to verify the claim that policies response to Canada were truly science-based.

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Suppose further that a group of eminent scientists were to investigate whether or not the minimum requirement was met, that alternative scientific hypotheses should have been welcomed and allowed to compete freely for verification and application in the world. development of Canada’s COVID response policies.

As even a cursory study of the history of science reveals, science thrives and progresses on the basis of competing assumptions, and its application is hampered by the dogmatic insistence that only one explanation of the phenomenon under study is admissible.

In response to COVID-19, however, a strong majority of public health authorities across Canada have insisted that there can be only one valid scientific narrative to explain the nature of the virus and the most appropriate to combat it.

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Alternative scientific accounts were not only poorly received, but the medical and scientific personnel advancing them were subject to censorship, “cancellation” and accused of spreading misinformation. Is this approach to policy-making “in line with science”, or would our distinguished panel declare that this approach is clearly unscientific?

Looking back, what can be done to improve the application of science to the development and implementation of public policy in Canada?

Three suggestions:

  • Clearly establish the minimum requirements that must be met before developers and administrators of a public policy can claim that it is truly science-based
  • Encourage scientists to become much more engaged themselves in communicating directly to policy makers and the public the application of their science to particular problems, rather than allowing that science to be interpreted, filtered and communicated by ill-equipped third parties.
  • As citizens, think more about how much we really want public policy to be driven by “science” and how much we want public policy to be shaped by other important factors and considerations as well.

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