Scitech  From research to reform

A new angle on public policy

The McGill Faculty Club hosted the third annual Science & Policy Exchange on Friday, September 14, bringing together a group of students and leaders in government, business, research, and the Montreal community to discuss and debate science policy issues in Quebec. Panelists shared their views on a variety of topics, including healthcare reform scheduled for 2014, science literacy in the 21st century, and sustainable policy making (especially pertaining to green technology), before taking questions from audience members and debating their ideas and proposed solutions with their fellow panelists.

There were 12 panelists from different professional backgrounds, from industry to think tanks to academia. Speakers included the principal of Earnscliffe Strategy Group, the director of health economics at the Conference Board of Canada, and an associate professor in the Integrated Studies in Education department at McGill. The day focused largely on the economic, social, and political sides of science. The science academics – the biologists, chemists, and physicists – were, to my surprise, missing in action.

Though there were enough differences in opinion to keep things interesting, the day wasn’t filled with dramatic ideological clashes. Panelists, in large part, agreed on  solutions to the major issues faced by Quebec and shared a general idea of what successful healthcare or science education would look like.

The subject of the 2014 healthcare reform was probably the most contentious topic of the day. Because the federal government’s current funding plan is due to expire in 2014, all of the provinces are reevaluating their healthcare systems to attempt to improve efficiency. There was some disagreement at the conference on the nature and scope of the role that private corporations should play. Panelists also had disparate opinions on whether existing healthcare and health policy research has yielded any palpable results.

Louis Thériault of the Conference Board of Canada, a nonprofit applied research organization, supported involving private corporations in healthcare as long as they were efficient. He maintained that corporations could play a positive role within the proper regulatory environment. Thériault also asserted that while healthcare research is in progress, and has been for a long time, there are few results to show for it. The two other panelists disagreed with both points – Dr. Astrid Brouseilles of Université de Sherbrooke, responded that when it comes to research, the question is “not what…the results [are] – the results are there – but how to put those results into action.” Brouseilles and Dr. Lee Soderstrom, a former economics professor at McGill, agreed that a universal, public option would be most effective, with Soderstrom pointing out that most research shows privatization of healthcare does not improve the efficiency or quality of care.

The panel also noted that moving forward, Quebec’s healthcare challenges may be very different from the rest of Canada – the aging population may not present as significant a challenge here as it will elsewhere. In addition, while many Canadians are familiar with both the Canadian and American healthcare systems, panelists noted that it may be worthwhile to also study successful models in Europe and learn from them.

The panel that followed highlighted the issues facing the different stages of science education. It was agreed that generally, high school teachers must become more knowledgeable in science and CEGEP teachers must improve their teaching methods. The panel thus emphasized the importance of reaching and engaging teachers. Panelists pointed to the presentation of science as a list of facts rather than an appeal to natural curiosity as the reason for the decline in scientific interest in the student body; instead, they encouraged a “big ideas” approach to scientific teaching.

All in all, the conference successfully raised new questions about the economics and politics of science and provided a platform to discuss existing policies. Next year, it would be nice to hear what academic scientists think, in addition to policy-makers’ opinions. Only they can help to address the issue of scientific necessity, in addition to those of costs and policy.