Last December, Health Canada held its 12th annual Science Forum. This event showcases the work of the department’s scientists and researchers, creates opportunities for dialogue with regulators and policy analysts, and stimulates innovative thinking.
The forum is an example of how one department is fostering dialogue between the research and policy components of Health Canada, keeping scientists engaged and enthusiastic about their work, and providing opportunities to network and build collaborations across the department.
Over 500 people registered for the two-day event. Most of them were from Health Canada although colleagues from the Health portfolio and other federal departments as well as academics and students attended.
Central to the forum is what’s called the Poster Session. One effective mechanism for sharing science among peers and building communication skills is by presenting recent, unpublished work via poster displays. This year close to 200 posters were submitted. A scientific review committee provided recommendations on each abstract and selected the most interesting or timely ones for oral presentations. Those were organized into a series of thematic concurrent sessions addressing key applications of science in decision-making.
The forum’s keynote speaker was Dr. William Leiss, who spoke on “New Challenges for Risk Communication.” There were also 62 presentations organized into four concurrent sessions, the poster sessions and a panel discussion entitled “Biomonitoring, Why Does it Matter?” The new Deputy Minister, George Da Pont, met with some poster presenters, gave his perspectives on science in the department and presented the awards for best posters. A key spin-off of the forum is the community formed through engagement of scientists and policy analysts from across the department on the Planning Committee, the Abstract Review Committees, and the poster judging.
The forum is a much anticipated event for Health Canada personnel and has taken on an even more important role as travel and conference restrictions have tightened. Health Canada professionals, both young and old, have an opportunity to develop posters and present their research to an audience of their peers, exchange ideas, and meet with those who may become collaborators. These opportunities are increasingly rare, unless the scientific conferences in the respective areas come to Ottawa.
In a world of shrinking (and frozen) operating budgets, it makes sense to examine the value of the Science Forum to the department.
Is there still a need for this initiative? Yes. Increasingly, science in government and elsewhere requires collaboration and interaction with others in the same and related fields. The softer skills needed to interact with others are not taught in university science programs – they need to be learned on the fly. Events such as this actually accelerate the rate at which science occurs since expertise is shared, challenges overcome, and evidence critically evaluated.
The forum provides an opportunity for students, new researchers and even the veterans to hone their skills in science communication and relationship building. At the same time, Health Canada science benefits from more cross-disciplinary (or at least inter-branch) collaboration on key science challenges.
Is this the best way to accomplish the objectives? Once again, yes! It is an opportunity to break down some of the silos that arise because of the focus on the immediate pressures within program areas.
Could the objectives be achieved using less expensive (technology-based) methods? Possibly, but not without major upgrades to the departmental IT infrastructure and significant shifts in culture for the science community. However, changing the culture of the science community to embrace a new way of celebrating and sharing their science will require experimenting, learning and some time.
Nevertheless, there are clear benefits to traditional face-to-face interactions (such as initiating and fostering professional relationships) which are difficult to duplicate by alternative forms of communication. Should we be exploring new avenues? Of course. Should we discontinue the forum now? Certainly not!
Health Canada is a regulatory department that needs to keep pace with rapid technological advancements in a wide range of fields. As such, it is a science- and evidence-based organization, with a voracious appetite for new knowledge and the application of that knowledge to its regulatory and policy decision-making. The Health Canada Science Forum is a good investment in strong evidence now and into the future.