Navigating today’s complex social, economic and political issues is taxing our once relatively effective processes and policies. Things that worked yesterday often do not today. Sorting out what might be best and fixing what is broken require one thing that has stood the test of time: evidence. And, nowhere are the facts more important than when Canadians’ health, security, prosperity and well-being are at stake.
Both the research community and public sector have a role to play in making sure that knowledge, research and analysis are readily available for policymakers and legislators. The 80,000 social science and humanities researchers of Canada represent the largest “think tank” available to those on the frontlines across the realm of sectors, issues and mandates.
We must mobilize this national reserve of knowledge and expertise to develop well-informed policies. And, thankfully, we are starting to see increasing awareness of this. One can point to three indicators:
First, elected officials, bureaucrats, journalists and engaged citizens are taking advantage of opportunities to interact with experts from universities across the country. For years, the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences has invited parliamentarians to breakfast lectures by Canadian researchers. At our most recent lecture on Aboriginal education, several members of parliament pulled Dr. Dwayne Donald into meetings after the event, connecting him with colleagues who are interested in the topic and his work.
Second, investments for university and college research continue to flow. For years, Canada has sent a clear message to the world that it intends to stay on the leading edge, that innovation and critical thinking are essential and non-negotiable – in good times and bad. And, if the intent of the recent budget lives on, then we see signals that this commitment to research investments is not only strong, but also growing.
Along these lines, I was fortunate to take part in last fall’s 10-year anniversary celebration of the Canada Research Chairs program. The vision and energy of those researchers and their teams, and the applications of their work in the areas of health, the digital economy and the environment, illustrated the power of advancing our thinking through evidence and creativity.
Finally, in a recent EKOS survey presented as part of the Walter Gordon Symposium in Public Policy, almost two-thirds of Canadians responded that they are bothered that evidence is not shaping public policy to the degree it should. In fact, 60 percent said that politics should be driven by intellectualism and rational debate, but only 17 percent said that it is. Canadians want a policy community that embraces evidence, but they feel let down.
What can we deduce from this? We need to explore innovative ways to strengthen the links between policymaking and research. For our part, CFHSS is leveraging its convenorship expertise to make this happen.
For example, at our 2010 Congress event, in partnership with the Federal Interlocutor for Metis and Non-status Indians and the University of Alberta, we held a daylong workshop on how to improve policy research on issues of concern to the community. The event attracted almost three times the anticipated guests, illustrating quite clearly the appetite for this type of collaboration.
Building on that success, we’re partnering at Congress 2011 (www.congress2011.ca) in Fredericton in late May on an Aboriginal youth-themed workshop, to which we’ll be adding practitioners to the already diverse group of participants.
So, knowledge transfer between experts and potential users in the policy realm is happening. There are even glimmers of excellence here and there. The challenge now is to encourage the further spread and uptake of these best practices so that Canada’s strategic reserve of knowledge is used for the benefit of all Canadians.
It is now up to those concerned with the public good to ensure we analyze before we act, create spaces for discussion and critical thinking, and be sure that knowledge, evidence and creativity are at the core of public policy debate and development. I can tell you that the research community is ready and willing to answer the call.
Jean-Marc Mangin is the executive director of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Previously he served as executive director of CUSO and as the first executive director of the Global Campaign for Climate Action.