At some point, between unpacking banners, confirming details for breakfasts and coffee breaks, and figuring out who sits next to the federal Science Minister at the gala dinner, Mehrdad Hariri will decide what he wants to say on Thursday night when he stands up in front of about 750 attendees at the 10th Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa.
Certainly, his audience will expect some personal reflections about the 10-year milestone, along with any thoughts Mr. Hariri may offer about the changing role of science on the federal landscape.
A decade ago, the Iranian-born former researcher was an utter stranger to that landscape when he first began dreaming of a public forum in Canada where scientists and policy-makers could meet.
Mr. Hariri has now managed to turn his annual gatherings into an indispensable networking event, where academics and industry leaders rub shoulders with politicians and bureaucrats to talk about science’s place in government and in Canadian society writ large.
The three-day conference cuts across professional silos and party lines, consistently pulling in participants from all sectors and from across the political spectrum.
“That’s hugely important,” Mr. Hariri said ahead of this week’s event. “We’re small but we have a role to play in bringing people together in a neutral forum where everyone can speak their mind."
The popularity and growth of the conference – it’s already sold out before it opens on Wednesday – suggests a subtle shift is taking place in a political culture where science is still often on the margins.
This year, for instance, Mr. Hariri has partnered with federal chief science adviser Mona Nemer to develop a program in which scientists spend a day meeting with MPs and aides on Parliament Hill before the conference. This dovetails with other efforts aimed at increasing dialogue between Canada’s research and political arenas – all with the aim of exposing decision makers to relevant expertise and scientists to political realities in the face of national and global challenges.
While the conference has become a key venue to hear from cabinet ministers and other high-profile speakers on matters of science policy, its larger impact may come from the one-on-one interactions between scientists, analysts and government staffers who have their hands on science-related issues on a daily basis, said Gail Bowkett, a speaker at this year’s conference and the director of innovation policy for Mitacs, a federally-funded organization that manages training programs for science students and postdoctoral researchers.
Mr. Hariri could hardly have imagined the must-attend status that his annual meeting would gain back when he was still trying to get the first version of the conference off the ground in 2008.
At the time, he was a former cell biologist getting his first taste of the policy world while documenting Canada-China biotech collaborations for the Toronto-based McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health.
“It was a way out of the lab,” Mr. Hariri said. But he soon found that he liked dealing with people more than with molecules, and felt a passion for the work that he had not experienced in his biological research.
It was after a visit to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2008 – where he witnessed a U.S. research community deeply engaged in policy matters in the run-up to the presidential election that year – that he began to think seriously about the need for such a forum in Canada. He is hardly the first to have done so. But as he was told by a number of more senior researchers and administrators no one in Canada had the time, inclination or resources to organize such an effort.
It would be a year before his plans came together, but whenever he presented the idea to potential participants, he said, the typical response was: “This is long overdue. I’ll come.”
Searching for a keynote speaker, he settled on the one politician in Canada who seemed to be the most vocal on science and innovation policy during that time: former Reform Party leader Preston Manning.
Mr. Manning, who has become a frequent speaker and is coming to the meeting again this year, said that he is encouraged by how much the event has grown since 400 people attended the first event in 2009, but that it still needs to pull in more participants from the political sphere.
“It’s still a struggle to get the politicos to attend,” he said. “There’s more work to be done to convince them that science has something constructive to say on virtually every issue they’re dealing with.”