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stephen toope

Stephen Toope is the president, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and director of Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto

The federal government is making important commitments to a new science agenda and backing it up with real action – such as reinstating the long-form census, unmuzzling government scientists and creating a new Chief Science Officer (CSO) position. It's a good start.

But, we've had a blind spot in our federal science policy for many years – and it needs fixing. We must put people back at the centre of a science and evidence agenda. If we don't, Canada's new science agenda will fail to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world. That's why Canadians need to pay attention.

A modern science agenda cannot be narrowly confined. It cannot be limited to the subjects we were taught in our high-school science classes – physics, chemistry and other natural sciences. We need those – but we need to reach wider. New Zealand's Chief Science Adviser, Peter Gluckman, said to the European Commission in 2014: "Until relatively recently, the nature of science advice to government was limited to relatively technical advice on relatively linear issues… Now we face a very different set of challenges, particularly the so-called 'grand societal challenges' which span borders, disciplines, and comprise a constellation of related and compounding questions."

The OECD, one of our leading sources for data on research and development, specifically includes humanities and social sciences in their definition of R&D, and for good reason. The humanities and social sciences fuel important innovation, particularly in service industries. Considering that the service sector now makes up 70 per cent of the Canadian economy, we can expect that some of the future's most important innovation will be social innovation.

When you look at the priorities of the Canadian government, the case for a science agenda that pays attention to human society is even clearer. Consider just a few issues the federal government is addressing: a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, programs to settle refugees in communities across the country, changes to the Canadian electoral system. Technological innovations or breakthroughs in natural science will not solve these challenges.

Questions of values, morality and human ethics are also key. A joint parliamentary committee recently released recommendations for new rules on medical assistance in dying. The committee knew they couldn't address this complicated set of issues without grappling with fundamental philosophical issues. They relied on testimony from rigorously trained ethicists to reach their conclusions. Could you imagine if they hadn't?

Human-focused science must be entrenched in Canada's science agenda and be engrained in our approach to building new science and evidence systems.

The mandate of Canada's new CSO, for example, should explicitly recognize an inclusive approach to all disciplines and research. Whether the government is looking for evidence to guide policy decisions about climate change or reconciliation with aboriginal peoples, we need the best possible evidence on those matters.

That's the science we need – regardless of whether it's seismology or sociology. A science agenda designed to address today's challenges cannot be limited by a narrow definition of what is and is not "science." That would be a disservice to Canadians.

We must also ensure we are effectively supporting the research that will produce the knowledge we need to address complex problems.

Canada is one of one of only five countries in a list of 41 countries tracked by the OECD where the total amount spent on R&D declined between 2006 and 2013. In 2006, Canada ranked 16th in R&D spending as a share of GDP; by 2013, we'd fallen to 24th. The human-focused sciences have been particularly hard-hit. Real-dollar funding for research grants to the humanities and social sciences declined by 9.4 per cent between 2009 and 2015 – more than any other research area.

The science agenda in Canada needs and deserves a lot of work. We're off to a good start, but Canadians should pay attention to what comes next. This government has wisely chosen to make the science agenda a national priority. The challenge now is to get the job done right.

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