Taking a different tack with disinformation in science
August 31, 2021
By Ian Evans
INGSA President talks about combatting disinformation, making a global impact and creating “bilingual” scientists who can talk with policymakers
When he first started in the newly created role of Chief Scientist of Québec, just over a decade ago, Prof Rémi Quirion(opens in new tab/window) faced something of a challenge. When you’re the first ever chief scientist in a region, and the first to be appointed in Canada, where do you begin, and how do you start shaping the role?
The answer to that question planted a seed that would grow into the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA)(opens in new tab/window), which is now helping ensure that science drives the policies that will face down some of the most pressing challenges of our time.
Tomorrow, Rémi will be appointed President of INGSA at the 4th International Conference on Science Advice to Governments(opens in new tab/window), which he is hosting in Montreal. On a recent call, he recalled those early days:
I’d been asked to take on the chief scientist role a few times, but initially I turned it down to focus on my scientific career. But the government kept coming back, and eventually I said ‘yes.’ But on the first day of the job, what do you do? There’s never been a role of this type in Québec before.
Rémi’s response was to call the chief scientist in the UK, where the model of a chief scientist advising on government policy had been in place for several decades, and ask for advice on how to get started. “That was extremely valuable,” Rémi said:
And not long after, I was talking to Sir Peter Gluckman(opens in new tab/window), a pediatrician who held the Chief Scientist role in New Zealand, and I suggested that we get together and maybe learn from each other more formally.
INGSA is now “a collaborative platform for policy exchange, capacity building and research across diverse global science advisory organizations and national systems.” Through workshops, conferences, tools and guidance, the network aims to “enhance the global science-policy interface to improve the potential for evidence-informed policy formation at sub-national, national and transnational levels.” As Rémi explained:
That’s where the way we work with an organization like Elsevier becomes really important. The work you do in data means that our comments and suggestions to government can be firmly based on data and metrics.The importance of open science and access to data to inform our UN sustainable development goals discussions, or domestically as we strengthen the role of cities and municipalities, has never been more critical.
Responding differently to misinformation and disinformation
INGSA’s mission is more urgent than ever, as both misinformation and disinformation are exploited by high-profile figures in attempts to undermine the scientific response. As Rémi noted, scientific disinformation is not a new concept, but both climate change and the pandemic have brought it to the fore:
With the pandemic, what you see is that false information gets circulated very rapidly. But I don’t think it makes sense to go head-to-head with the anti-vaccine community. It makes it worse if you go in hard, but if you take a softer approach and try to be convincing, you can reach more people.
The response to the pandemic also shed a light on the channels through which false news gets circulated, leading to a change in tactics in the government response:
If I take Québec as an example, every day at the start of the pandemic, we were on TV, on the radio. We reach some people there. But a big portion of society isn’t on those channels. Young people in general aren’t listening to the radio or watching TV, so you have to find ways to reach them on social media on streaming channels.
With that in mind, Fonds de recherche du Québec(opens in new tab/window) (FRQ) started a small program, with available funding, for people between the ages of 15 and 25. The idea was that these people would have the support and resources they needed to build an argument and get the key messages out. “Then it’s a teenager talking to a teenager, rather than someone like me trying to convince them,” Rémi said.
Through INGSA, Rémi is looking to share many of the lessons learned from the pandemic and ensure they are applied to the response to climate change. Like the pandemic, climate change requires government policy that is strongly informed by scientific expertise and needs to bring the public on board. For climate change, Rémi noted, the younger generation is already urgently involved in the message:
They really want to do things to help – we’re seeing that the young generation is already with us in many, many different countries. That helps. And I think that the pandemic has shown that we can work together to address the biggest challenges facing society. So, we’re looking at what we’ve learned and seeing if we can apply that to climate change.
Rémi noted that the pandemic has shown the importance of a personal connection to the challenge. While the climate crisis will have a catastrophic impact, those impacts will likely be longer term. The pandemic showed that people need to understand the impact on a personal level:
I think of it like, ‘How do we bring climate change down to Earth?’ With the pandemic, you had people’s attention because people were seeing it in their families and their communities. So you need to explain what climate change will mean for people, what it means for their street, what it means for them as individuals.
Elsevier has partnered with leading science organizations and Economist Impact for a global collaboration to understand the impact of the pandemic on confidence in research — and identify areas for action to support researchers.
To make an international impact, “get on the ground”
Indeed, while the I in INGSA stands for international, Rémi keeps coming back to the underestimated value of the local connection:
That was something the pandemic taught us. Working with local government is so important. The national government can say, ‘We should do this, we should do that,’ but it’s getting involved in cities, towns and villages where you get to really concrete action.
As such, Rémi’s plans for INGSA include building a framework for embedding scientific advice at a local government level. He explained, “Getting scientific advice at a local level can have a lot of impact – it becomes very practical, very focused on action. We’re discussing with the mayor of Montreal, for example, having a group of advisors in the city that can help inform the response to anything from pandemics to traffic accidents.”
The focus on on-the-ground action harks back to a piece of advice Rémi received from another chief scientist when he faced a flooding crisis near the start of his tenure as Chief Scientist:
It was a big flood in Québec, and one of advisors got in contact with their colleague in the UK. Their advice was: ‘Don’t spend too much time dealing with the higher levels of government – get on the ground and talk to the mayor because that’s where the problem is that you have to find solutions to.’ So that’s what we did, and I think by working directly with the communities, we were able to provide advice a bit more directly, and quickly.
The need to work on the frontlines is also informing INGSA’s strategy in the Global South as they expand their capacity with renewed focus on their chapters in Africa, South America and South Asia, alongside workshops and advice on building networks. In this way, the scientific community in these areas can become ever better equipped to ensure that scientific advice is embedded in the policy that deals with challenges specific to these regions:
With the short workshops we stage, what we see is that often the advisors in these countries are meeting for the first time. For INGSA, we really want to support these networks as they form so that people can exchange ideas, learn from each other and start to link more and more with their local governments.
Creating “bilingual” scientists who can talk science with policymakers
Rémi also noted that knowledge exchange is a key factor in building the way scientific expertise is embedded in policy, and that building bridges between scientific advisors benefits everyone. That can mean researchers getting experience working in a different country, but it can also mean having a policymaker join a lab or getting a researcher into government role. After all, he said, excelling at science is quite different than excelling at bringing science into a policy environment:
I sometimes say part of our role is to create a generation of bilingual scientists – people who know the science but who also know how to talk to a policymaker. The difference is quite pronounced. Living in Canada, I wouldn’t compare it to one person speaking French and another speaking English; it’s more like one speaking English and the other speaking Mandarin.
Expanding INGSA while focusing on the idea that started it all
Overall, Rémi’s vision for INGSA is about ensuring that everyone who needs it knows where to turn for dependable scientific advice, and that those advisors are well placed to provide that advice in the way that will make the biggest difference. INGSA is continuing to expand its influence and reach, with new chapters formed and new chapters planned. Its 2021 conference is its biggest yet, with speakers from over 50 countries and 2,500 delegates from more than 130 countries. Once that meeting closes, its focus will turn to an open call for candidate cities for INGSA 2023, ideally in the Global South having hosted four biennial meetings in the Global North (Auckland, Brussels, Tokyo, Montreal).
Throughout all that, as Rémi’s ideas indicate, INGSA’s activities still encapsulate that simple idea at the start of his tenure as Chief Scientist: whether it’s the company with the data, the researcher with expertise, or the colleague who knows the policy jargon ...
When in doubt, ask an expert.