20 March 2017

- A report by 2016 scholars Anna Dion, Heather Bullock, Gerard Kennedy and Antoine Pellerin

On February 6th and 7th, we had the privilege of attending a two-day seminar organized by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation on “How Ottawa Works”. The seminar explored how public servants, Parliamentarians, Parliament Hill Research Units, media and civil society organizations interact and engage with academics and other researchers. February 6th concentrated on Bill C-14, concerning medical assistance in dying, while February 7th concentrated on the anti-terrorism legislation Bill C-51. We heard from policymakers, politicians, media and researchers involved in these processes regarding how they unfolded.

Whether it be as research staff supporting Senate deliberations, or as Expert Witnesses contributing to the development of Canada’s laws and policies, it is clear that researchers and academics have a role to play in “how Ottawa works”. This article pulls together our favourite insights and tips from the two days.

Getting Information About Political Processes

While it can often seem that the public and academia lack opportunities to engage with political discussions, there are several ways that we can stay informed about who is involved in these discussions and the information that is feeding them.

  • Open Canada Database: Accessible information includes Government of Canada digital records, completed access to information request summaries, and contracts over $10,000.
  • Canadian Lobbying Registry: is a registry of lobbying meetings involving public officials organized by time period, organization and public official
  • Policy Horizons: An organization within the federal public service that works to anticipate emerging policy challenges and opportunities to support medium-term policy development by the Government of Canada.
  • The Library of Parliament plays a key role in gathering and presenting research to Parliamentarians. This information is also available to the public.

Research and Policy Processes

Policies are often opportunistic. For example, C-51 was fast-tracked in reaction to the shooting of Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa and the RCMP deaths in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. In these contexts, there is often insufficient or uneven academic outreach and inadequate opportunities for consultative processes in policy-making. By providing research in formats that are accessible and timely, “real-time academics” can build strong relationships with those involved in policy processes and respond directly to their concerns. Researchers need to balance “just-in-time” delivery to feed into political processes against the often longer timelines of academic publishing.

Several researchers were invited to be witnesses on Parliamentary Committees (you can also apply to be a witness on a Committee).  Specific tips for Committee Witnesses include:

  • Request the Terms of References for your participation and transcripts from previous Committee Meetings; ask the clerk what they would specifically like from your participation
  • If testifying on a Bill, it is helpful to provide specific language for draft amendments
  • Researchers are sometimes criticized for not taking sufficient account of the overall context of their proposals. When making recommendations, consider the mindset of a policy-maker with many competing priorities. Committees are generally well informed and know the main issues to be considered. They are looking for concrete advice and not just options to consider.


How to Get on the Radar

Knowing how to get your research into the hands of people that need to know about it is critical. Members of Parliament, seasoned journalists and leading civil society organizations all had the same advice: Share your work with us! …while being brief and using accessible language.

Get to know the Members of Parliament (MPs) that are interested in areas relevant to your research, as well as the civil society organizations contributing to the discussions and the journalists covering the issue. Send them some of your research in plain language and as brief as possible. “Providing work done is a gift to politicians”

The Library of Parliament is committed to seeking out diverse views and is always interested in receiving research, particularly if a topic currently in discussion in Parliament. Social media (blogs, Twitter, etc) and mainstream media (op-eds) are also great tools to share and promote one’s research.

The Costs

There is great value in engaging with policymakers - influencing policy, contributing to society and a sense of personal fulfillment. But there are also potential costs to be considered, which are often unpredictable and vary across a researcher’s career.

The “formula one” pace of opportunistic policy-making can be all encompassing as legislation moves “in real time” and all other commitments must be put to the side. The lack of incentive structures within academia increases the costs to researchers investing their time in policy processes. Researchers must also be cognizant that they will have little control over how organizations, politicians, NGOs, industry, and others may use parts of their research to further their own interests.  

Researchers hold at once a great privilege of being in a position to examine some of society’s most important issues, as well as a responsibility to share their perspectives.  In doing so, they need to be prepared for the human costs of taking potentially unpopular positions in public, including being vilified on social media or by colleagues.

From the insights shared with us over these two days, it is clear that researchers have much to offer in working across government. However, they also have much to gain in terms of understanding the multiple demands placed on policy makers and policy processes. Strengthening meaningful exchanges between academia and government will allow both researchers and public officials to leverage the others’ expertise to improve policy and lead to better-informed and policy-relevant research.


Anna Dion

Anna Dion (family medicine, McGill University) is seeking to improve the quality and access to maternity care for marginalized women in Canada, especially immigrant and refugee women, and at-risk adolescents.

2016 Scholars

Heather Bullock

Heather Bullock (health policy, McMaster University) is identifying the best ways to embed mental health policy into daily practice across the different layers of Canada’s social system.

2016 Scholars

Gerard Kennedy

Gerard Kennedy (law, York University) is exploring how Canadian civil procedure can be reformed to increase access to justice and improve relations among Canadians.

2016 Scholars

Antoine Pellerin

Antoine Pellerin (law, Université Laval) is interested in the government’s power to contract and is examining the conditions required for this power to be exercised in the public interest.

2016 Scholars