How can students get involved in science policy?

Fighting for science and the decisions it informs

How can students get involved in science policy?

With the recent anniversary of Toronto’s March for Science, it’s hard to ignore changes rolled out by the Ford government this past year.

Not only has the government scrapped initiatives such as Ontario’s cap and trade carbon tax program and energy efficiency programs, it eliminated the position of Environmental Commissioner and fired Ontario’s Chief Scientist. Many of us who disagree with these changes are wondering where and how we can have our voices heard, especially since the march — which sought to encourage science that works for all — did not take place this year.

Having a seat at the table is the first step toward the inclusion of scientific evidence in policy. This means showing up to city hall meetings and contacting local representatives about science issues that matter to you.

“There are many competing voices [in policy], and there will be trade-offs and balances. Our job is to help people understand what those trade-offs really mean,” said Dr. Dan Weaver, Assistant Professor in UTSC’s Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences.

Each year at U of T and across the world, research yields mountains of new scientific data. Weaver noted that we must continue to incorporate this new data, see if our goals should shift, and ask ourselves if policy and the public are still informed. For researchers, this means communicating findings effectively to those drafting policy.

Weaver pointed to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris as an example of effective communication. Initially, limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius was set as a policy goal, but further scientific evidence showed that the outcomes would be less costly and far more manageable if capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius instead. This informed policymakers and inspired stronger initiatives for more aggressive emission reductions.

Let’s Talk Science and U of T’s Science Communication Club, both organizations that focus on science communication and outreach, are outlets for students to advocate for science. According to UTM PhD candidate Sasha Weiditch, students can also create their own blogs or participate in activities with groups such as Soapbox Science.

For those interested in policy, Toronto Science Policy Network (TSPN), co-founded by U of T PhD candidate Ellen Gute, regularly organizes workshops on science advocacy, communication, and policy, in addition to hosting panel discussions. These workshops teach students and researchers how to translate their knowledge into an accessible format for the public and for political representatives.

Initiatives outside of campus, such as Citizen Science, allow people to assist in the collection of important data, work on environmental monitoring, or get involved with public science education and awareness.

There are many ways to fight for science as citizens, students, and whoever we will be in the future.

Instead of showing up en masse to march in the streets this year, we must show up in equally great numbers to our campuses, city halls, and voting booths, to communicate the critical importance of science for our democracy and the world at large.

“This is not a woman’s issue; this is a human rights issue”: U of T groups host panel on diversity in STEM

Advocates discuss the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in Canadian STEM research

“This is not a woman’s issue; this is a human rights issue”: U of T groups host panel on diversity in STEM

On March 4, a panel of advocates who champion diversity and equity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields discussed the importance of representation in Canadian STEM research at the Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

The event was hosted by Women in Chemistry Toronto alongside campus groups such as the Black Graduate Student Association, the Toronto Science Policy Network, Women in Math, and University of Toronto Coders.

Panelists included Dr. Juliet Daniel, a cancer researcher and associate professor at McMaster University; Dr. Imogen Coe, a biochemistry professor at Ryerson University who studies membrane transport proteins; Dr. Deborah McGregor, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School whose research focuses on Indigenous knowledge systems; and Dr. Emily Agard, director of SciXchange at Ryerson University, an organization that increases the accessibility of science for youth.

The first question of the night was about the importance of representation. Coe said that for her, representation is important because if the inability to picture yourself in a field can translate to an inability to be an active participant, which she finds is directly related to the achievement of goals and aspirations.

Coe urged that “representation is essential if we are going to move towards a more equitable kind of environment where everybody does have a voice, everybody does have an ability to contribute and participate.”

Most of the discussion was focused on equity. McGregor discussed an imbalance with Indigenous people in regards to traditional knowledge due to historical trauma.

Coe explained the importance of inclusive leadership and the acquisition of core competencies as “an understanding and application of equity, diversity, and inclusion principles.”

“This is not a woman’s issue,” said Coe, noting that allyship is a concept that is actionable. “This is a human rights issue.”

Recruitment was one area that Agard elaborated on in terms of access.

“Sometimes the word doesn’t get out to certain circles, so you have all sorts of talented people who might not have the opportunities [because they] aren’t in the same circles,” said Agard. Here, recruitment plays a key role and ultimately the talent recruited will have strengths that “speak for themselves,” she says.

Daniel discussed the importance of equity, noting discrimination in committees of which she was a part.

Agard recounted that a committee was “willing to overlook the deficits of the Caucasian applicants” as their deficits would be overcome while “on the job.”

However, this same privilege was not granted to non-Caucasians. She said that it was important to “get [members] to start thinking about how we’re still biased, that we are willing to waive the deficiencies of candidate A but not the deficiencies of candidate B.”

Furthermore, Daniel talked about acknowledging discrimination and how while one candidate may not have the skill set to become a high-ranked employee, it is not due to lack of capacity or interest but due to being “discriminated against along the way.”

Lina Tran, President of University of Toronto Coders, noted that events like the panel discussion are important because support is not just from underrepresented groups but from allies as well. “I think it’s just amazing to see people come together and support each other through trying to change things institutionally and socially.”