Dr. Katie Gibbs is a scientist, and one of the founders of the national non-profit Evidence for Democracy a group dedicated to “the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making in Canada.”
Evidence for Democracy – or E4D as they call themselves – is a movement that began in 2012 while Stephen Harper was still Canada’s Prime Minister, and leading a government that was well known for ignoring evidence, muzzling government scientists and burying their research.
On today’s episode, Katie joins us to talk about:
- The strategies her group used to get evidence on the agenda during the last government
- How they’ve had to change their approach since Justin Trudeau took office, and
- whether evidence and democracy are even compatible
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Follow Evidence for Democracy’s Work:
On Twitter @E4Dca and Facebook.
Follow Katie Gibbs on Twitter: @katiegibbs
Episode Transcript: The Push for Evidence-Based Decision-Making in Canadian Politics
Mark Coffin: This is episode number five of the Govern Yourself Accordingly podcast. The podcast for engaged citizens and public leaders who want to lead change through politics with their integrity intact.
Reporter: I was going to ask you to explain quantum computing but…
Justin Trudeau: Very simply, normal computers work… (applause) Don’t interrupt me, when you walk out of here you will know more…well, some of you will know far less about quantum computing… but most of you…
Justin Trudeau: [With] normal computers, either there’s power going through a wire, or not. It’s one or zero, a binary system. What quantum states allow for, is much more complex information to be encoded into a single bit. A regular computer bit is either one or zero, on or off. A quantum state can be much more complex than that because as we know, things can be both particle and wave at the same time. The uncertainty around quantum states allows us to encode more information into a much smaller computer – so that’s what’s exciting about quantum computing.
[Applause, clip ends, theme music begins]
Mark Coffin: If you don’t follow Canadian politics the same way that today’s guest on the Govern Yourself Accordingly podcast does, you might be forgiven for assuming that since the election of Justin Trudeau, decision making in Canada’s federal government is informed by the best possible evidence.
After all, he sounded pretty good in that clip which went viral shortly after it was recorded at a press conference in April of 2016 where Trudeau was standing side by side with theoretical physicists announcing…
You know it’s not actually that easy to find out what he was announcing that day – I’ve flipped through several news stories on the topic, and you’ve got to dig pretty deep to find out what the government was actually doing about theoretical physics on that day – aside from trying to explain it.
Regardless of how science-friendly a government is, politicians have their own interests, and sometimes it takes a push in order for them to act.
Enter today’s guest: Dr. Katie Gibbs – a scientist, and one of the founders of the national non-profit Evidence for Democracy a group dedicated to “the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making in Canada.”
Evidence for Democracy – or E4D as they call themselves – was a movement launched in 2012 – during the time when Stephen Harper was Canada’s Prime Minister, the head of a government that was well known for ignoring evidence, muzzling government scientists and burying their research.
Katie Gibbs: When we first started, it was very much an outside game, pretty much only an outside game.
So now it is a very different type of work. Especially recently, we’ve been doing a lot more of that inside game. It’s often less public. The doors are open, and so now we’re learning and figuring out how to play that game.
On today’s episode, we’ll talk with Katie Gibbs about the outside game, and inside game of advocacy, why it can be tougher (but better) to be playing the inside game, some of the challenges in her work, and whether evidence and democracy can be compatible.
[theme music fades out]
Katie Gibbs: Like a lot of kids, I really loved animals and endangered species. I went into science because I wanted to save all the endangered species. It’s a lofty goal. It was a little bit different than by a lot of people going to science. I love science, I was passion about it, but I was always interested in science as a vehicle for informing policies and making good decisions.
When I started my PhD thesis, I thought that was actually how it works – the scientists ask questions and produce results and answer questions, then the policymakers use that information to make decisions accordingly. Pretty naive, right?
Quickly I realized, that’s not at all what actually happened. Really, most of the science was never seen, much less used by anyone, much less policymakers. Early on I became interested in this question. If policymakers aren’t making decisions based on the science, what are they making decisions based on? I became interested in questions like, how do you influence decision makers? Which ultimately comes back to, how do you influence the public?
I did a lot of volunteering on environmental campaigns, and I did a lot of political work in my spare time while I was working with the Green Party. I ran the the national youth wing for the Green Party for a number of years, I worked on a few of Elizabeth May’s campaigns.
It was kind of like I was doing both for a number of years, trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life – am I going to keep doing the science a stay on the science path, or am I really going to jump ship and do campaigning work? So what I’m doing now Evidence for Democracy makes a lot of sense. I’ve been able to take this job where I get to do both of those things. I get to work in the science realm while doing the campaigning and outreach work that I love. It’s been a perfect melding of all my interests and passions.
Mark Coffin: When you did your PhD, what was it specifically that you focused on?
Katie Gibbs: It was sort of macro conservation ecology, if that makes any sense. I was in the biology department, but looking at broad scale trends and patterns across lots of species, so really the work itself was more like applied statistics.
Mark Coffin: I can see how that would also become political fairly quickly, once you start getting into what to do about it.
Katie Gibbs: I wasn’t out in the field actually taking measurements of animals, it was mostly looking at really big data sets, crunching numbers, it was very policy oriented. The main chunk of my thesis, I was looking at assessing the Endangered Species Act in the U. S. and trying to look at which policy levers under it had actually resulted in an improved status for species, and which hadn’t. It’s kind of funny because I didn’t really think of myself as someone who was all that interested in policy, but looking back, that’s clearly the thesis question of a policy wonk, not a biologist.
Mark Coffin: You said something earlier that I want to go back to, about how you very quickly realized that notion that scientists put the evidence together, and policy makers put decisions together, and make policies and programs based on that evidence. You quickly learned that wasn’t how it works. Do you have a sense of how it does work, or do you have a working assumption for what is the main driver of decisions that affect the kind of issues you’re working on?
Katie Gibbs: Not really. It varies a lot, and sometimes it can be malicious in the sense that governments purposely try to ignore or subvert admittance of science, but often it wasn’t malicious. It was just a lack of knowledge and a lack of time, and a lack of access. When I think of most of the people that I now know, who work in policy shops in government… they don’t even have access to the primary scientific literature, nor do they have the time to be searching through all of these scientific papers that come out every day. There’s just so much information out there, that is really not something that they’re able to do, to sort through it all.
Mark Coffin: What gap does Evidence for Democracy try to fill in that in that space?
Katie Gibbs: That’s a good question. I think it’s already changed quite a bit over time, even over our short existence. When we first started, our focus was really on creating the political demand for evidence-based decision making. I sort see that as the first step. First, you have to have governments that actually want to use evidence. But that’s not enough on its own, even once you have that. Then, there’s still a whole bunch of other problems of how to actually make it happen. It is a lot harder than you might think, but certainly when we first started in 2012-2013 under the Harper government, we were very much focused on that step one: create the political demand for evidence-based decision making.
That involved getting the public media and science community to talk about these issues. particularly getting scientists to be outspoken advocates for the role of science in government decision making. We were quite successful in getting that on the media’s radar, and the political agenda, around the last election. We had a new government since 2015, and in the last little bit our work has shifted more to the question, how do you actually make it happen? That’s probably a lot harder question. It’s a bit more fun, more juicy. We do more work now with government and the science community, in trying to figure out how to make those bridges.
Mark Coffin: I’m curious to know about the change of tact that you had to make between the transitions from the two, from the former government to the new government. My sense is that there simply wasn’t the appetite under the Harper government for evidence in all the areas that they already had an ideological position on, and correct me if I’m wrong, my sense is that the the campaign would have been to replace them, whereas now there’s a chief science advisor.
It seems like the policies, at least on the surface, were supportive of the broad goals you’re asking for. What were your goals? Was it to replace the government at that time, or were you fingers crossed that someone more pro-science would get in?
Katie Gibbs: It’s our our view that science can’t be a partisan issue, and it can’t be a one-party issue. It’s not like we were explicitly trying to get the conservatives out of government, but we were trying to have a government that we can work with. The reality was that under the Harper conservatives, the door was very much closed. There was no working with them on any of these issues. When you’re talking about campaigning you distinguish between the outside game versus the inside game. The outside game is targeting the media and causing a stink, and the inside game is working with decision makers and trying to find solutions to get things done. That’s a very rough overview.
When we first started, it was very much an outside game, pretty much only an outside game. The doors were shut, so the work was around mobilizing scientists and the public, and elevating the issue in the media and in the public eye. We tried to work with government and put in requests and never got very far. We did do some work at the time trying to approach the other parties. It wasn’t just by chance that we got another party that does, at least on the surface, care about science and evidence. We did a lot of work targeting the opposition parties while Harper was in government, trying to sell them that this was an issue that they could take up. Once you’ve created enough of a buzz in the media and shown that we have enough public support on our side, then we were able to get these meetings with the liberals and the NDP and the greens to say this is a big issue, the public cares about it, scientists care about it, and they’re going to be vocal about it going into the next election. You can use this, you can come out with some strong science policies and strong support for evidence-based decision making.
Bringing back a chief science advisor, that was an issue that we explicitly took in meetings with the opposition parties before the election and tried to sell them that this was something they should include in the platform, and that we would cheerlead them when they did. We were really happy to see so much support and so much up-take for that. We saw all of the opposition parties include aspects of support for evidence-based decision making on un-muzzling government scientists, bringing back a few science advisor positions, they all included this in their election platforms. So now it is a very different type of work. Especially recently, we’ve been doing a lot more of that inside game. It’s often less public. The doors are open, and so now we’re learning and figuring out how to play that game. We recently did a lot of government relations work around trying to save this high arctic research station called Pearl.
This was our first time doing really detailed lobbying, and it involves meeting with political staff in the science minister’s office, in the environment minister’s office, in the PMO, also meeting staff and the bureaucratic levels of the different departments, and so there is a lot to it. It’s complicated, and it is almost like a game of trying to figure out all these different relationships and interpret what all these different people are saying from different levels, and trying to figure out what it all actually means, verses what they’re saying, and use that information.
We definitely learned a lot, and it was completely different work than the kind of work we were doing a few years ago.
Mark Coffin: Right, the outside game stuff.
Katie Gibbs: You can’t just totally stop the outside work. Part of what we struggled with at first was not really knowing how to balance that inside game and outside game, and that’s something we’re getting a better hang of now.
Mark Coffin: Talking to other groups that were maybe not necessarily explicitly anti-Harper or anti-conservative, but when you look at their policies and look at what they’re advocating for, nothing really aligned. They found that when the new government came in, there was a drop in public support and a drop in donor support in some cases, because people had probably a false presumption that now that the the government we didn’t want is gone, there’s no problem any more. But the people who are actually doing the work are realizing that we still need the support, still need to be there. It’s just like you said about the language of outside game versus inside game. It really does shift to that, because they’ve got their own priorities too.
Katie Gibbs: Especially when your donors are the public, it’s harder write that captivating fundraising email talking about your inside game. This is something we’ve struggled with over the past few months. You have like a dozen meetings in a week, and you get the sense that you are elevating your issue to high levels of the PMO, which is what any campaigner wants – which is great – then you’re like, how do I write a fundraising email about this? You can’t really. It’s harder to fundraise off of. As an executive director I found that to be such a frustrating dynamic.
Under the Harper years, there was such a clear boogie man, such a clear villain in the story, that it made a really compelling narrative to get people to donate. But really our capacity to make change was quite limited because all the doors were closed. Now, with a more friendly government, now is really when we need people to come on-side and not just give us money, but also engage in our campaigns and work with us. Now, the doors are open.The positive change we can make is almost limitless. Now is really when the hard work happens, of making concrete positive change. So it’s a far more exciting time, but it is harder to sell because it doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling story.
Mark Coffin: I can see it being challenging to put a fundraising email out there if it happens to be the weekend that Justin Trudeau went viral explaining quantum computing.
Katie Gibbs: We’ve really been trying to make that case, that the villain of our story is gone, but now is when we have this amazing opportunity to make positive change. It’s certainly true for our cause, and I am sure this also affects other NGOs working in Canada. Trump being elected to the US was a really good reminder here that we can’t take any progress that we currently have for granted. We certainly use that as a warning of why we have to do everything we can now to make sure that we are we’re not just saying ‘okay they’re good and they like science.’ They’ve got it today, but we have to actually go further and make sure that we are making the kind of very specific concrete changes that will be hard for any potential future governments to undo.
Mark Coffin: You mentioned the challenge of building public appetite for supporting that inside game. Are there other challenges that you’ve run into along the way that you are currently grappling with, or things you might have learned that could be helpful for some of our listeners?
Katie Gibbs: The biggest challenge is constantly persevering. Running a small NGO is not easy. You can always feel like there are more challenges every day – challenges on the organizational level of raising funding and not having resources, and also challenges in the space. You look at all of the all of the problems and you want to fix them all, and you have such such tiny resources that it seems impossible Having to sort of like get up every day and deal with that big challenge makes this a hard profession, a hard career to be in.
I don’t have any answers, it’s not easy. You might talk a lot with other executive directors of fairly small NGOs, and it is a hard job. I think it’s okay for us to say that and talk about it, and pat ourselves on the back or continuing to do it day-in and day-out.
Mark Coffin: As the executive director of a small NGOs I totally hear that. I find it helpful to look at NGOs of similar size that are doing less, and use that as sort of inspiration and motivation to keep going.
Katie Gibbs: The big challenge is really the sustainability of it. It’s quite hard, especially for small NGOs. For all of us, it’s almost always like you’re taking a year at a time, at best. That’s the aspect of uncertainty, both for the organization itself, but also for us as individuals for whom that also means our career prospects are year by year. That sense uncertainty and instability can be quite challenging. It’s certainly something that you have to accept and get more comfortable with if you’re going to stay in this realm.
Mark Coffin: It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy in either direction. If you’re comfortable with that, things get easier – uncomfortable with it, things get harder.
I’m curious I saw an article in Policy Options magazine this year, talking about one of the challenges that a lot of young faculty at universities. They were talking about how risky it can be as a career move, to be too involved in community work, and specifically talked about doing work that would get their research – whether it’s social science or science – out in mainstream publications like magazines or op-ed sections of newspapers. When you guys were initially mobilizing scientists to take action,was that a challenge you faced in getting scientists and other people who do research for a living to speak up?
Katie Gibbs: It absolutely was, and still continues to be an issue. This is something that is hotly debated within the scientific world. Going back to my grad school experience, our labs had a journal club where you would take a scientific article once a week, and everyone would discuss it. Quite a few times we would end up taking these pieces that were sort of commentary pieces on whether or not scientists should be advocates.
This is certainly not a new thing being discussed in the science community. My personal view is that idea is ridiculous. I remember being at a scientific conference anda very famous biologist said that how he interpreted his job as a professor was not limited to teaching undergraduate students. He interpreted his job as a teacher, and part of his role in being a teacher was to teach the public in the broad sense. That’s very much how I interpret the job of a scientist.
Almost all of the scientists in Canada, and around the world, the vast majority of them are publicly funded. They’re funded by taxpayers, so not only should they be encouraged to communicate more, it should actually be a requirement. Part of being paid by the taxpayers is being expected to communicate your work back in those public channels, and not just communicating your research in very limited ways to other academics.
So I have never really understood that argument. That argument also stems from this idea that scientists somehow have to be impartial and unbiased. I think that’s also flawed logic. Scientists are only humans. They have biases, all humans do. Science itself is supposed to be a method of producing unbiased information, and it’s not perfect. Like democracy, it is just the best system we have for producing unbiased information. The reason it works is not because scientists themselves need to be unbiased, it works because of the scientific method, and peer review is supposed to counteract any potential bias in the individual to produce information as a result.
I disagree with that whole sense of of scientists themselves somehow needing to remain impartial and remove themselves from situations. That said, I do find that the sentiment is changing with younger scientists. Especially during the Harper years, there was a lot of fear within the science community. It was actually frustrating at the time because it was more young scientists who were speaking out, and a lot of the tenured, well-established professors who you think were in a position to speak out, they often were the ones who were more fearful.
I look at Dianne Orihel, who led the campaign to save the Experimental Lakes Area. She did an absolutely tremendous job and basically put her thesis on hold, and became a full-time campaigner to save the ELA, and it was successful. There really were a lot of younger researchers speaking out. Maybe they did have that fear, and I’ve seen in my conversations with some of them, that fear was there but they were willing to speak out anyway. Now especially, we’re in 2017, almost five years past that semina ‘death of evidence’ rally where scientists really got outspoken, and so many of the scientists who were outspoken, they have either continued or gone on to have very successful traditional science careers.
I almost look at that as an experiment – scientists did speak out, and what happened? Did they lose their credibility? No. Did they go on to be successful scientists? Yes. So those those results are in. Scientists can engage and speak out when necessary, and still be very credible scientists.
Mark Coffin: It’s a career path that I don’t know enough about personally to fully understand how prevalent those attitudes are, but it’s good to know that people who are speaking out are still doing good science, and are still able to be employed doing good science.
I want to ask a question that I wrestle with a lot. There’s nothing inherent about democracy that demands evidence. At least this is my assumption, and I’d to hear your take on it. Looking at the United States, there’s nothing that prevents folks who are completely not interested in the truth, let alone detailed evidence and studies and more complex forms of information, from running and winning in elections. In most societies we measure them on the basis of whether they are democratic, do they promote the free exchange of information, and do they make decisions based on those things. I’m curious if you’ve given thought to that. Especially with being… I don’t really like the term ‘post truth era’ because it’s become a buzzword, but it does seem like there are some trends that would suggest people who are good at collecting information, and people who are good at putting it out there – like you said, one of your learnings early on was that it may not be as powerful as we think it is – in many ways your organization is addressing that, by doing the hard work to push evidence in front of the people who are making decisions. I’m curious if that’s a dilemma that you wrestle with as well.
Katie Gibbs: It’s almost like you’re asking, ‘is there evidence for democracy?’ For me, where there is a link to democracy is around transparency. Are governments clearly communicating to the public what decisions they’re making, and what information went into that decision? That’s really where the the evidence-based decision making comes in. The people who are consuming the fake news and their decisions are being informed by fake news – they don’t they don’t know that it’s fake news. Even those people that we’re thinking of, if you ask them they would probably think that they’re supporting evidence-based decision making.
They don’t know that it’s fake news, they believe it to be truth. That’s the bigger issue for me. How do we get to a point where the public and individuals are in a position to be able to assess the information that is being dumped on them on a daily basis, and be able to determine what is reality? That is directly linked to that question of democracy. It could still be democratic for a government to make decisions that aren’t based on evidence. But it’s all about how they’re communicating that. I don’t think you would see a government that says, ‘the evidence says this, but we are ignoring it and we’re going to do this instead.’ That’s not what they do. Instead, they try to hide the evidence that shows they should be doing A, and in the worst cases they might actually try to make up or massage the evidence to say that to make it look like it supports their decision to do B. In our little bubble we call that ‘decision-based evidence making.’ The running joke is that is what we usually have instead of evidence-based decision making.
That’s really where the concerns around democracy come in, in that manipulation of information, whether it is actually manipulating and altering things for political reasons, or if it is suppressing information that goes against what the government wants to do. That’s really where there is this core intersection between evidence and democracy. That’s sort of why we have this obscure organizational name that could confuse people. It does capture the core of of what we’re all about.
Mark Coffin: We have a course at Springtide that a woman named Sera Thompson comes in to teach from time-to-time, called Deep Democracy. One of the basis of it is that it’s a leadership model leisure framework that is not based on the presumption that the people you are trying to lead or influence will make rational decisions, or respond to your actions and behaviors rationally. Another way of saying that which I’ve heard is that humans make decisions emotionally, we justify them rationally to sell them to other people, or to convince other people. It sounds somewhat like ‘decision-based evidence making.’ It’s an ongoing question that I’ve been asking myself, and other people who I think might have the answer, like yourself. If that’s present at the individual level, between me and whoever it is that I have to justify the decisions of my life to, what learnings are there at the society level for how we go about repairing democracy and the things that we see is wrong with it?
Katie Gibbs: One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as well, is that in most cases there are overlaps between what I see as two separate movements happening right now. One is this deep democratization of government and how we make decisions, and the sense that if we utilize new digital tools you can really put decision making tangibly back in the hands of the public. Then there’s also this movement pushing for evidence-based decision making. Are our decisions being informed by experts and evidence? Most of the time, those things are on the same page, and those movements are moving in the same direction. What is potentially really interesting, is what do you do when those things contradict each other?
One example is, there have been some municipalities where the public has pushed back on the use of fluoride in the water system, using not-science, not-evidence, using alternative facts and either a sort of fear mongering to scare people that the fluoride is poisoning them. They’ve been successful in some municipalities, and got them to stop using it in the water. The science community and the dental community are shocked at this, and all the experts are saying, ‘What are you doing? There’s so much clear evidence that fluoride is effective.’
That’s just one easy example, but as we move into the future, it’s going to be really interesting to see how those two separate movements work together, and what happens when they clash.
Mark Coffin: It sounds like you’re saying, ‘I’m curious wait and see.’ No predictions?
Katie Gibbs: Yeah. I’m not pretending to have any answers, but this is also why we feel that raising the bar of science literacy among the public is so important, and having scientists communicate to the public is so important. I’m hoping that avoids more potential conflict between those two movements.
Mark Coffin: Let’s hope you’re right. Katie Gibbs thanks for making time for this conversation.
Katie Gibbs: Yeah, it was great.
Mark Coffin: That’s this week’s episode of the Govern Yourself Accordingly podcast.
Thank you so much for tuning in.
Govern Yourself Accordingly is a podcast produced by Springtide, and we are a Canadian Charity committed to helping listeners everywhere lead change through politics with their integrity intact. Find us at Springtide.NGO, follow us on facebook facebook.com/springtideco; or on Twitter @SpringtideCO. You can find me on Twitter @MarkCoffin.
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