Periodically Political

Periodically Political - S1E2 - Kimberly Girling

February 12, 2021 Elect STEM Season 1 Episode 2
Periodically Political
Periodically Political - S1E2 - Kimberly Girling
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, our guest is Dr. Kimberly Girling, who was the Interim Director of Evidence for Democracy -  an organization that advocates for the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making in Canada ( She has a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of British Columbia and is currently a Senior Analyst at Public Health Agency of Canada.

*Note - this episode was recorded when Kimberly was the Interim Director of Evidence for Democracy.*

Chris Caputo  0:11  

This is periodically political brought to you by elect stem, we bring you stories of where politics intersects science. My name is Chris Caputo, and I'll be your co-host today along with Darren Anderson.

We'd like to welcome our guest, Dr. Kimberly Girling, who is the Interim Executive Director of evidence for democracy, an organization that advocates for the transparent use of evidence and government decision making in Canada. She's a PhD in neuroscience from the University of British Columbia. And we're thrilled to hear your insights on to you know, politics and science in Canada.

Kimberly Girling  0:56  

Thanks for having me. I'm happy to be here.

Darren Anderson  0:59  

Awesome. Welcome, Kim. So at Elect STEM, we seek stories of scientists who are actively involved in both policy and politics. So our first question is about your origin story. So why did you decide to get involved and become an advocate for science in policy in Canada?

Kimberly Girling  1:17  

Yeah, so I mean, when I was doing my PhD, I was studying new, like new, new drugs for neurodegenerative disease. And I got into science because I was really interested in actually having an impact in health. And I kind of thought, you know, I'm a scientist, I'm doing all this work, I'm going to be making disease, more treatable, I'm going to develop medicines that are actually accessible and can actually treat disease. But what I found is that there's a huge gap that actually exists between doing science in the lab, and actually getting that science out to people. And for me, I was really challenged by the fact that the policies we were making around things like drug pricing, often made those drugs inaccessible to people who required them, or policies we were making about things like harm reduction and mental health, were challenged by things like stigma around addiction and mental health policy making. And so that to me, was really difficult for me to process and something that I had never really thought about going into science. And it was really frustrating to watch political decisions be made, that were much more influenced by things like lobby groups, or public perceptions and stigmas around things like health care. And I think I felt a responsibility as somebody who had the knowledge of science to get involved in those conversations. But I didn't really know how to do that. So I mean, I was lucky because when I graduated from my PhD, this program called the Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellowship was brand new. And it was all about bringing scientists into the fold of public policy at the federal government level. So I actually made the transition into federal policymaking as a policy analyst through that program, which was a really great way of sort of bridging the gap. So it was through that program that I gained experience working in, in policy in the government. And then in the last couple of years, I've had the opportunity to kind of work at that interface between political decision making, and policymaking in science with Evidence for Democracy. So I guess like my journey of really came from a deep desire to ensure that science was used in government decision making and wanting to be a part of those decisions and be a part of those conversations.

Darren Anderson  3:20  

It sounds like a major component was also the having an impact, knowing that what you were researching was going to have a real world impact, which I think is something that a lot of scientists really, really care passionately about.

Kimberly Girling  3:33  

Yeah, yeah, no, absolutely. And I think that a lot of scientists think that just inherently by going into science and publishing science, that their work is going to be reaching the audience that's intended, and that by putting things out into the published literature, you've done your job. But as you and I and all of us know, sometimes political decision making can be a lot more complicated than just sort of accessing science from the journals.

Darren Anderson  3:56  

Oh, that's, that's really interesting. So you mentioned the Mitacs science policy fellowship, there may be folks in the audience that aren't really familiar with it, maybe give a 30 second summary of what the program is for, particularly for folks that are early career that might be interested in that kind of training.

Kimberly Girling  4:13  

Sure. So the Mitacs Canadian science policy fellowship is basically a program that matches up scientists. So that's really a broad, so anyone who has a PhD in sort of Social Sciences, hard sciences, any science, it matches you up with government departments. So it started out as just federal, and now it's actually working at the provincial level as well. But government departments can actually apply for with projects where it would benefit from having someone with a science background on board. And that really has policy implications. So for me, surprisingly, I was matched with national defense and I worked on helping them to evaluate emerging technologies for human enhancement and looking at the potential ethical challenges that could arise and kind of thinking in a long term policy planning way of the kind of policies we might need. to address those ethical challenges, but the policy fellows have done a ton of different really amazing work. And I would say there's a lot of really cool programs like that that are emerging. So others would be maybe action Canada, or the recruitment of policy leaders program. But it's a really cool thing to see that the government at various jurisdictions are actually looking to bring more of that science capacity into their departments.

Darren Anderson  5:22  

Very, very cool. And so how has your STEM training influenced your success? Either when you were doing your fellowship or subsequently at evidence for democracy?

Kimberly Girling  5:31  

Yeah, I mean, I think that it's been a huge factor in my success. So I remember. So after I finished my fellowship, I actually transitioned into a strategic policy team within national defense and my first day and my new team, I think, I think there was maybe even a little bit of skepticism because I was the only scientist who's working on the team of sort of more heart policy people and, and I remember trying to feel like, I have to prove that I can operate in this policy space. But my manager actually said to me, the very first day, you're really good at finding information. And I say, I'm like, I'm a researcher, what do you think? Yeah, and when you look at policymaking and sort of working as a policy analyst, or working in a policy team, a lot of what you do is really research. You know, a lot of what I had to do on a day to day basis was coming up with briefing and looking at an issue and trying to, you know, think about the policy implications translate that for my senior, my senior decision makers. So for example, I was working on a bunch of interdepartmental science issues like Arctic science and artificial intelligence, which really meant going into the literature and talking to stakeholders, really interpreting that and, and thinking about the policy implications. And because I was working in science, policy shops, having the skills and the knowledge of how science works, and what good science looks like, I think, has been really fundamental to my success. And I also think it actually made me a more desirable candidate to work in science teams, because most people who go into policy shops don't have that science background, it's not required to have that science background, but it definitely has been beneficial to me to be able to help act as an interlocutor between those worlds and sort of help translate to both parties. And I guess in the same way, I did a lot of sort of stakeholder engagement working in various teams that I've worked in, both at E4D and in the government. So being able to speak the language of the scientists, I think gives me a bit of clout, and it makes it a little bit easier for me to, to sort of build trust with both communities, which I think is important.

Chris Caputo  7:35  

That's, that's fascinating to hear. Like, it's clear that, you know, the science training can really, you know, help us succeed in, you know, the policy or politics space. So, with that in mind, and based on your experience, you know, how do you think we can engage more scientists and engineers, or stem educated people? In politics?

Kimberly Girling  8:00  

Yeah, I mean, that really is very much what we're kind of getting at with our work at Evidence for Democracy. So I guess to kind of build a little bit on what we do. Our goal is to empower the science community to bridge that gap between science and decision making. And so we do a lot of things like training for scientists on how policymaking actually works, and a lot of communications about what's going on in the political space. And you know, where their role as scientists could actually work. Because I think one of the biggest barriers for people who are working in the science space is that they see politics and policymaking as a world that they don't fit into, and that they don't really have a role in. And I remember thinking about this a lot. Last Christmas, I was visiting family, and I was having a beer with one of my old supervisors who I worked with doing some research. And he was expressing to me his concerns about something that was going on with regard to science funding in Canada, and he had kind of reached out to me to say, can you help, you know, use your skills at E4D to connect with the political decision making space? And I said to him, like, haven't you thought about actually, you know, doing that yourself, like, they would be really happy to hear from you. But he never even crossed his mind that political decision makers would want to hear from a scientist, he thought, Well, the only people who can access those decision makers are the people who are already in that bubble. And I mean, that's just not true. When I did a study last year talking to members of parliament about how they find and use evidence, and all of them. I mean, almost all of them said, I wish that there were more scientists on the hill coming to talk to us, you know, trying to find that and access those scientists is really important. So I guess that's a long way of saying that, I think, just encouraging scientists that, that they do have a role in that space and trying to sort of give them access to that space is really what we, we try and do with evidence for democracy. And I would say that that's a really key step in encouraging scientists to get involved is framing what's happening. In a way that, you know, your skills and your interests can actually have a real impact in this in this space. Because I think that to a lot of scientists, it feels really inaccessible.

Chris Caputo  10:11  

Yeah, that's that study you did is really quite interesting that that, you know, if the politicians actually want to hear more from scientists on the decision making, and it begs the question, if there were more scientists actually elected to Parliament, could that have an even greater influence on the decision making? And, and there's definitely a, you know, still a disconnect between providing advice and kind of taking that jump and trying to run for office. And so one thing that we want to do at Elect STEM is to try to demystify this journey and encourage those with a science or engineering background to try to take that leap and run for office. So based on your experiences, you know, dealing with politicians on Parliament Hill, what advice would you give our audience if they're considering running for public office?

Kimberly Girling  11:08  

Yeah, I mean, I am one of those people who admittedly never even would have considered that probably even five years ago. Like, I've now been in this space for a while. And I think it just feels completely, like, especially even as a person who's very involved in sort of political advocacy, even for me, it seemed really inaccessible. So I guess the first thing I would say is, is talk to people who have done it, you know, maybe have a meeting with your elected officials in your area, you know, talk about what they did, I know a lot of elected officials that I know, would love to have that conversation. There's a couple of other groups. So I went to an event recently called run like a girl that CATHERINE MCKENNA has sort of championed here about trying to get more women involved in the political process, and has done some really cool events, she sort of demystify the process for the general public, and especially for women, because there's a lot of barriers for women to run a lot of the time as well. And I think what you guys are doing is such an amazing thing as well, because even for me, like being quite involved in the political space, there are things that I'm still learning about, well, how do you raise money to do that? And, you know, how do you actually take the time off of work? And, you know, how do you find supporters to actually help you get into that space? So I would say sort of the first step is just talking to people who are involved in the political space, you know, getting involved in a campaign, and supporting an elected official, and actually, you know, running in their campaign and seeing what that process looks like finding political issues that you care about that you might want to sort of use as a as an issue that you want to care about deeply and get your constituents involved in. But I agree, it can be a huge, a huge hurdle, even for someone like myself, and like you guys who are involved in this space.

Darren Anderson  12:54  

One thing I've certainly noticed, that I didn't really realize going in to some of these kinds of activities is just how accessible our public officials are. To your point game. I mean, my experience has been that when I've wanted to go speak to my local MP, or my local MPP, generally speaking, the doors have been open. And they've been keen to talk about these issues. And I think that's, it's a really interesting feature of our democracy, I think it's a real positive.

Kimberly Girling  13:21  

I think people forget that our elected officials are there to serve the public. And, you know, they, one of the things that I thought was really great about the study that we did talking to MPs is that, you know, they went into this field, because they really care about something, you know, like, almost every MP we talked to came from a place where they, you know, they got involved in politics, because they were deeply concerned about something or they were deeply invested in a particular issue, and they wanted to make a difference. And, you know, they they're in the job because they want to serve the public and their, their job is to act as a representative to support their public and their constituents. And, and I think that that's an important thing for people to remember is that they're literally there to sort of do what the public needs and wants and be representative. So yeah, like, I think that people should not shy away from picking up the phone and having a conversation and they'd be surprised at what they get back.

Darren Anderson  14:15  

So earlier, we touched a little bit on some of the potential impacts of having people with STEM training, running for public office elected to public office, where do you see that that impact potentially playing out? I mean, what why do you think this is something that would be a would be a positive? Or do you think that it would it would make a difference?

Kimberly Girling  14:33  

Yeah, I mean, I'll preface by saying that I don't think it's, it's required that every single person in elected positions need to have a stem background, but I do think that it can make a huge difference for a couple of reasons. So, I mean, I got I come back again to the study that we did, because I think it's a really nice kind of example of this. So what we did when we talked to this is MPs but I would say it's probably the same in anyone and a lot of the office position. We talked to them about how They find in us information and the job that they do. And everyone we talked to said the same thing, which is that information is coming at you from all different places. So there's, you know, people sending you emails, your constituents send you emails, you have research coming out of the fold, you have the news media and stuff that's happening all the time you have tons of reports that are coming from the government information is just flooding your desk, a huge, huge high speed you in that position need to be able to sort of filter through that information, decide what's relevant, what's credible, you know, what should I actually use to inform that decision. And especially when you're in a decision making position, where you need to be making decisions about complicated issues that require strong science, I mean, COVID is a really great example of that, where the science is changing so rapidly, we have to make informed decisions that impact the public, that can be really challenging for someone who doesn't have a science background to be able to say, well, is this a credible study? Is this something that actually I should trust? is this coming from a source that has actually been robustly, you know, peer reviewed, or, or conducted in a robust way? I mean, that's hard for anyone to do. But never mind someone who doesn't have a science background. And I actually think that a lot of people don't know this, but a lot of elected officials have very few staff actually supporting them in doing this. So a lot of members of parliament said, you know, well, I like relying on the library of Parliament to help me do that. But there's always going to be a couple of delay, days delay and getting access to that information. So you know, they might have one or two staff. But even then those staff might be like 21 year olds who are just interning in their office. So I mean, the capacity to actually navigate, that high volume of information is sometimes limited. And so I think that having that background, the same way that I felt it was a huge asset in my job as a policy analyst, the background to critically appraise information, and to know where to look to find information, I think, is really important. And I mean, it's not going to be the same in every position, it's not going to be the same in every portfolio. But I think, especially when you're making decisions about, you know, stuff that you need to appraise complicated technical information, it can be really beneficial to have that background. And even to have someone at the table, you know, who has a STEM background in a, you know, in a committee or in a group of elected officials, having that representation from some backgrounds, I think is really important.

Darren Anderson  17:18  

You also have the connection into the scientists or engineers own network, which gives you that added those additional degrees of connection.

Kimberly Girling  17:27  

Yeah, and a lot of I mean, even in the study that we talked about, it was kind of funny, because I mean, of course, you're gonna have, you know, selection bias of the NPC decided to participate in this work, probably being more invested in evidence based decision making. But a number of them actually said, because one of the questions I asked them was, okay, well, what how do you tell if something is credible information or not? And most of them said the same thing, which is, well, you know, I looked at the source, you know, sometimes I talked to experts, but a lot of them said, Well, I have a background in science, and it helps me to be able to say, well, is this a report from an organization that I should trust? You know, did it come from, you know, a process in a rigorous peer review system? So a lot of them actually said, You know, I use that skill set, or Well, you know, I came from a university. And so I know who to call to help me appraise this information, because I have good connection to the scientists. And I also think that it sort of builds trust as well, like I think right now, especially with COVID, we're in a place where I hope we're building more public trust in in scientists and experts. And it's been really great to see people trusting public health officials like Theresa Tam, and beer etches here in Ontario. And I think that there is a bit of a I've hoped trust that comes from people who have backgrounds in science who are making decisions for us about things that require strong science

Darren Anderson  18:48  

makes a lot of sense.

Chris Caputo  18:50  

So changing gears a little bit. Evidence for democracy recently had a big push to reappoint Canada's Chief Science Advisor, which was very successful. So what impact Have you seen having a Chief Science Advisor federally on, you know, policy and government decision making? And do you think it's important going forward?

Unknown Speaker  19:09  

Yeah, so I mean, to give a little bit of context, so Dr. Mona Nemer was appointed as Canada's Chief Science Advisor, back in 2017. And the position had previously existed on and off in Canada. But during the Harper government days, the position was cut. And so it was pretty amazing to see a Chief Science Advisor come into play and the whole role was kind of put into place to help the government sort of find evidence. Her role is to is to advise, primarily the Prime Minister, but also the minister who oversees the science portfolio. So previously, the Minister of Science now the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. So over the past couple of years, the office has done I think, some pretty important things. One of the things that I think is a little bit challenging is that up until now, it's kind of been operating in the background. If you’re a science wonk like me, you've been paying a lot of attention. But some of the examples would be, her office was penning, or they penned this policy called the model scientific integrity policy, which I'm surprised didn't get as much airtime as I think it should have, because it was really the policy that aimed to unmuzzle scientists after the Harper government days. So it's a policy that's now in place across science departments in the government that allows scientists the ability to speak more freely to the public about their work to ensure that scientists are credited for their work in government. As well as that there are like methods in place to ensure that scientific integrity is happening in federal science, which is pretty amazing. Her office is always championed a lot of the work around open science, which is the sort of science part of the open government initiative to allow federal science to be more openly accessible to the public. So those things and on their own are really amazing. She's also chaired a lot of panels and sort of advisory groups on science issues, which is really important. But I would say that COVID has been a real turning point for the role of science and vice in government. So Dr. Nemer’s, office has been really important and an active since the pandemic started. So for example, they she's chairing, and a part of a number of task forces and advisory groups to make sure that we're sort of bringing science to the government more effectively working on a couple of different issues. They have, she's been a lead on this really cool initiative called can COVID, which is a digital platform using Slack, where they actually are coordinating scientists across Canada to ensure that science is being shared and communicated effectively. And they do like summaries every week of just what's happening in the science field, which is a really cool kind of expression of open science and practice. She's done a lot of public calls for things like open science. So it's a really good example of how in an emergency situation, we've had a person and a team, who is activating that science and acting to bridge the gap between those worlds, and actually acting as well to sort of ensure that science across countries is being communicated. So she's been a good sort of touch point between us and other countries and other science advisors. So yeah, like the campaign that we did was to try and ensure that that science capacity for science advice is maintained. Because the mandate of the Chief Science Advisor during the time we were doing, the campaign was supposed to expire at the end of September 2020. So we pushed to make sure that that didn't happen. And we were happy to see that it was advanced. But we're still a little bit concerned, because right now, the position isn't permanent. So it's not enshrined in legislation. Which means that if we did have a snap election, it's possible that the opposition could be cut. And so I think that it's really important that we continue to push for mechanisms to sort of build on that science advice and that momentum and continue to build departmental science advisors and that sort of capacity to ensure that that bridge between those worlds

Chris Caputo  23:02  

Yeah, the important sounds, it's, you know, huge that that can COVID initiative that you mentioned, it's, it's, it's so simple yet so important, like just using a simple piece of technology to break down the barriers of science communication across the country, it's really quite elegant. So now, I'd like to flip it to you. And so do you want to tell us something exciting, that Evidence for Democracy is working on at the moment that you're excited about?

Kimberly Girling  23:30  

Yeah, so there's two that I would like to share. So the first is, so as a more kind of a direct follow up of the work that we did, looking at evidence based decision making in practice with our MP studies, the next phase of that research is looking at transparency with regard to evidence informed decision making. So the project that we're doing right now is following up on some work that was done in the United Kingdom, where they developed a framework to evaluate how easy it is for the public to actually find the evidence that was used to inform policy decisions. So when a policy is announced, is the government also announcing the evidence that was used to inform that decision? And can the public find that evidence? So we're doing kind of a replica of that work here in Canada? So we're just finishing year one, and the first year of that project is actually developing a Canada framework? So we've done a lot of work in the past year looking at where the government shares evidence, you know, if a policy is being announced, can you find that evidence? Where do they put it? How does that fit into other initiatives like open science and, you know, open data and open government? Or, you know, does the government have tools for doing things like lay summaries and, you know, making science accessible, so, we're gonna be doing that. And then following that, we're gonna be doing a kind of departmental ranking exercise of how well we're doing here in Canada. So I'm really excited about that work. And it's meant to really encourage the government to be more transparent with evidence to build trust in our institutions. And they're also doing a lot of work around misinformation. So we've been studying you know how misinformation gets propagated, and really investigating the role of the science community and helping to combat misinformation, as well as looking at potential policy solutions that could be possible here in Canada that help combat misinformation. So pretty excited about both of those projects right now.

Darren Anderson  25:17  

Wonderful that those both sound really interesting. And I can definitely see the impact of success there. So that that that's great. So thanks for the insight so far. Now we'd like to start our quickfire segment. So I'm going to ask you three related questions. And we'd like you to give us a quick answer in just a sentence or two. So sounds good? Wonderful. So what do you see as the most important intersection between science and politics over the next 10 years?

Kimberly Girling  25:46  

COVID-19 trying to figure out how to cope with the pandemic and the economic recovery, that's going to have to happen as a result of COVID.

Darren Anderson  25:54  

Okay, and what about over the next 25 years?

Kimberly Girling  25:58  

Climate Change. I'm trying to figure out the fact that we're having this massive impact of global warming, and they are changing climate and trying to figure out how to sort of respond to that, I would say climate change.

Darren Anderson  26:09  

And so if we're extending the time horizon a little bit further, and we're looking at 50 years out, what would you say?

Kimberly Girling  26:15  

I mean, I would say sort of a result of climate change, and the sort of compounding efforts and maybe both the pandemic and also our changing climate. So things like food security, and public safety and, and housing and all of the sort of followed effects of climate change that are going to impact our well being it's kind of a terrible note to end on. But, I mean, I think they right now we're in a climate crisis, and, and the policy impacts of that in terms of our economy in terms of public health and safety in terms of sustainability, and food, and everything is going to be the biggest challenge in the next 50 years.

Darren Anderson  26:52  

I'm hopeful that most of that will get resolved over the next 25. And therefore, we could look at something a little bit more optimistic over the next, but…

Kimberly Girling  27:02  

Well sorry, flying cars!

Darren Anderson  27:06  

Excellent, excellent. I thought given the work that you did earlier in your career, I thought it was going to be human enhancement. But you know, flying cars, human enhancement, those are the positives if we can solve the climate change issues. Excellent.

Kimberly Girling  27:20  

Yeah, for sure. I could have I could have gone into the killer robot side, but we’ll have to save that for another day

Darren Anderson  27:27  

Excellent. So thank you, Kim. So before we wrap up, how should folks find you if they'd like to follow up or ask questions or get involved in evidence for democracy?

Kimberly Girling  27:36  

Sure. So all of our evidence for democracy, social media is E4Dca, so we're on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, all the places. We also have a website, which is And then if you want to follow up with me, Twitter is a great place to do that. All my social media is just at @Kimberlygirling, and feel free to touch base if you're interested.

Darren Anderson  27:58  

Wonderful. And we'll put all of that information in the show notes. So thank you, Kim, for spending time with us today. It was really a pleasure and really appreciate the insight you've given our politics, curious listeners. So really appreciate it. 

Kimberly Girling  28:12  

My pleasure. It was super fun.

Darren Anderson  28:14  

Wonderful. Well, thank you for listening. If you liked this episode, we encourage you to rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps new listeners discover the show and we're looking forward to speaking to you all again next time. So thank you very much.