October 29th, 2009
In some versions of the story, Sisyphus actually pushes the boulder all the way up the hill.
I am in Toronto this week for a Science Policy conference. A lot of big shots are here, university presidents, the presidents of our national granting agencies, Members of Parliament and their staffers, and so on. Why are we all here? The conference is motivated by a desire among researchers to build bridges between the academic and policy makers. It is widely felt that there is a real disconnect between these communities, that decisions about what kind of science should be funded, and how science can be harnessed to make our lives better, are almost always made in a vacuum—often by people who do not know that much about current trends or past practices.
By ‘science policy,’ one really means the entire spectrum of research, including the social sciences and the humanities, or, as the French more conveniently say, the human sciences. A young female philosopher of science stood up today to insist on the importance of remembering the reach of the spectrum. It needs to be said over and over. Scientists are smart but they can be self absorbed and a little too narrow.
In Canada, there are various national university-based committees mandated to solve certain kinds of problems or examine health and social issues, but there is as of yet no grounded national science policy forum. This conference is designed to motivate such a possibility. Will it? Too early to tell.
There is a lot of good will in the room, however, and the really amazing thing about all of this is that it began with a dream in the brainpan of a post-doctoral researcher and a few graduate students. These people pushed that boulder right to the top. Realizing what a lack there was of a national policy network, they applied for some conference funding and imagined exactly the large scale of the event that we are all part of this week. It’s a testament to the power of thinking big, and to the audacity of new scholars who possess the faith, energy, and ambition to live what they dream. If you consider that the Minister of Industry is delivering a plenary address on the last day of the conference then you have to admit to the sheer awesomeness of the young organizers.
I don’t want to sound ageist but it struck me on the first evening of the conference that there was an obvious gap between the students behind the activities and the more senior participants, the former urging a new dialogue and more social engagement, the latter relying too much on the past and not enough on how to go forward.
As I said, it’s too early to tell where all of this is going over the rest of the event, but I remain hopeful. Indeed, I am rather excited by the infectious energy and idealism of the crowd who put all this together. It a bit of a reverse mentoring situation. We could all learn from their example, and probably will by the end of it.
The big lesson here so far: if you feel strongly about something then find a way to see it through. And if you are a graduate student, you can find solidarity with your peers and make something quite remarkable come to pass.