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How does a government stay on top of, and ultimately address, the latest complex policy issues? One way that the Government of Canada has tried to tackle this problem is to assemble policy experts within the government's policy think tank, the Policy Research Initiative (PRI). The PRI brings together policy researchers from numerous federal departments and agencies, universities, and other governments. A key element of PRI is the National Policy Research Conference, held once a year in Ottawa, which provides PRI members with an opportunity to meet face to face and brainstorm on a variety of key policy issues.

The PRI established the Canadian Policy Research Awards (CPRA) in 1999 as a way of encouraging public policy research. Although the policy research awards have no money attached, they honour the contributions of top Canadian academics, journalists, and institutions. With categories such as "Career Achievement" and "Outstanding Research Contribution," the CPRAs are open to individuals in public, private, voluntary, academic, nonprofit, and other nongovernmental sectors.

To recognize the achievements of the younger cohort of policy researchers, in 2000 the PRI teamed up with the federal funding agencies (CIHR, NSERC, and SSRHC) to establish the Graduate Student Prize, which covers the areas of health and natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, and technology. Like the other PRI awards, the Graduate Student Prize carries prestige rather than monetary value and encourages young researchers to take a more active role in communicating the potential policy implications of their work.

Since its inception, the Graduate Student Prize has been awarded to 52 researchers--mostly Ph.D. students, but also master's degree students and postdoctoral fellows--in a variety of disciplines and from across Canada. While about half of the applications received each year are from students in the social sciences and humanities, the health sciences and natural sciences/environmental studies are well represented.

Each year, an independent, multidisciplinary committee of academic policy researchers evaluate the approximately 100 applicants based on the quality of analysis of the research, policy relevance, communication, and the applicant's accomplishments and research potential. Winners are invited to Ottawa to meet the creme de la creme of policy researchers and policy developers and attend the 3-day national PRI conference.

"Winning the prize was a real honour," says University of Toronto doctoral student, Christine Till, one of 15 winners in 2002.

Till's graduate research is in the area of environmental health, not policy-making, yet the Ottawa conference gave her an opportunity to learn a lot more about the latter area. She adds that the trip made her realise "how important it is that we learn to communicate our findings to the general public"--something she was not always entirely comfortable with doing. "Before I went to the conference, I was somewhat intimidated by speaking to the media because I've always felt that they would think I was biased in my presentation of the facts." But the Ottawa experience helped her understand that there is a way of presenting the facts in a very objective manner without expressing personal opinion.

Reducing Occupational Hazards

In fact, Till finds herself in the position of communicating her research to the public on a regular basis. Her prospective study on the impact of solvent exposure on offspring neurodevelopment is the first of its kind in Canada, and it is of critical importance in an area of public health concern where there are little data and few laws. In many provinces there are no existing regulations governing exposure of pregnant women to organic solvents, a state of affairs that she finds very troubling given that her research shows solvent-exposed children have poorer visual acuity and problems with colour vision compared with control groups. Till hopes that in the longer term, her research will guide provincial legislators in setting safe exposure levels for pregnant women.

"I would love to see legislation change in Ontario, for example, and for people to really assess the risk that is out there for this type of exposure during pregnancy. But putting the research into practice is hard," she explains. A major challenge, she says, has been getting the message out into the community.

For Till, it is essential to strike the right balance between publishing her research in academic and family physician journals and disseminating her findings to the public in an effective manner. Till has started informing employers and employees about her results, but is finding that some employers are abruptly turning a deaf ear. On the other hand, "a lot of women are very excited to hear that we are doing research in this area and it's very fulfilling to speak to them and hear about their experiences."

She admits that there is a downside to all of this public exposure and it is something that graduate school has not adequately prepared her to deal with. "All of a sudden I find my role has become one of a public advocate and women will call me regularly, seeking advice. This [counselling] is something I didn't expect to be doing in graduate school," Till relates. "I have to watch what I say as some women want definitive answers that we are not in a position to give."

Your Money and/or Your Life?

Another of the 2002 Graduate Student Prize winners found his policy research to have important ramifications for Canadians. Phil Devereaux is a cardiologist and Ph.D. student in the Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics department at McMaster University. While he dedicates most of his research time to understanding how to predict and prevent heart attacks and cardiac death, Devereaux spends some time studying modes of public health care delivery in North America. The timing of his research is particularly important, given the ongoing debate in Canada about whether to retain private, not-for-profit health care delivery, or move toward investor-owned, for-profit health care.

Last year, Devereaux and his colleagues at McMaster, the University of Toronto, and the University at Buffalo published pioneering systematic reviews and meta-analyses of studies comparing the mortality rates of private for-profit hospitals and those of private not-for-profit hospitals (more commonly, although somewhat inaccurately, referred to as "public hospitals" in Canada). In one study that examined data from over 38 million inpatients in North America, Devereaux and his colleagues determined that patients treated at investor-owned, private for-profit hospitals had a significantly higher risk of dying.

"The increased risk is such that if Canada was to switch over to a system of private, for-profit hospitals, we would expect an additional 2200 Canadians to die each year," says the cardiologist, adding that this number is comparable to that of Canadians dying each year in motor vehicle accidents or from colorectal cancer. He also argues that findings are crucial for policy-makers, as "no one would willingly introduce such a scheme with obvious negative consequences."

In addition to earning the recognition of the PRI, a private audience in November 2002 with the head of the Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada, Roy Romanow, only served to underscore the importance of Devereaux's research. Romanow said the study was "compelling and directly relevant to the whole health care debate currently going on in Canada."

Devereaux believes that there is a real need for more health policy researchers in Canada, and that they should "continue to undertake research that will help shift policy decisions away from ideology and theoretical arguments and force them to be based on the best available evidence."

The Future

Till's prospective study research is highly interdisciplinary in nature, using research methods drawn from many disciplines including toxicology, psychology, and the neurosciences. As such, it also opens up different research career options. Nonetheless, she is keen to pursue policy research further. "I am very interested in continuing my research in the area of environmental health, but I also see a great need for applying my research to improve Canadians' quality of life." A lot will depend, she says, on the government considering children's environmental health as a priority area in the future.

Devereaux too would like to spend more of his time addressing policy issues, but says he is limited by the lack of funding available. "In terms of getting money for research in health policy, particularly for systematic reviews and meta-analysis, it is extremely difficult," he explains. Currently, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research do not fund the kind of research he's engaged in, a decision that Devereaux considers "unwise."

"If we really want to have high-quality research to aid policy-making, we need to have government agencies paying for this research."