Social science and impact assessment

By: Marion Doull, Senior Policy Analyst, Ottawa

I was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and my family immigrated to Canada in 1980. I now live in the traditional, unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Algonquin Anishinaabe nation in Ottawa, Ontario. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Kinesiology from the University of Ottawa, a Master’s of Health Sciences in Health Promotion from the University of Toronto and a PhD in Population Health from the University of Ottawa. After completing my PhD, I worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of British Columbia.

I joined the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada in 2018 as a Senior Policy Analyst through the Recruitment of Policy Leaders Program, which is a great program for scientists to start a career in the federal public service where their unique knowledge and experience is valued and where they get to apply their expertise to work that impacts all Canadians. My role and responsibilities involve providing subject matter expertise on health and gender-based analysis plus (GBA Plus) and conducting research and analysis to support the implementation of the Impact Assessment Act (the Act).

I was attracted to science because I am curious about everything and feel I am always learning. I am a feminist social scientist so I have always studied the different contexts within which people live and the many ways in which people are impacted by the world around them. I love that research and science help make visible what we do know and what we do not know, and challenges our assumptions about people and systems. I like that data and information can be transformative by uncovering structural and systemic barriers and I am interested in how these barriers affect our health and well-being. As a social scientist, I see the power that is embedded in people’s lived experiences and how this knowledge can be used to work toward more equitable policies, programs and spaces. I also like that science allows us to ask questions about how evidence is gathered and used in policy and practice. As a scientist interested in gender, I always seek to ask how we know what we know, whom the data is about, whom it applies to and whom it does not apply to. Asking these questions allows us to really understand how science and information can be inclusive and address the diverse needs of people.

I apply science every day in my work at the Agency. I joined the Agency just before the Act came into force, which introduced the requirement for GBA Plus in assessments of major projects within Canada. I am often asked, “What does GBA Plus have to do with pipelines/projects/mines?” To respond, I use my research skills to draw on the substantial body of feminist and social science research, women’s knowledge and research by Indigenous scholars and nongovernmental organizations to highlight evidence of the ways in which projects impact people differently and how we can consider these impacts and mitigate them. For example, the work of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has provided a substantial evidence base on the impacts of resource development on the safety and security of Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual (2SLGBTQQIA) people. This evidence, grounded in the lived experiences of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people, has equal value to quantitative evidence on biophysical and environmental impacts and warrants equal action. When we expand our understanding of evidence and include diverse voices in our processes, we can better understand impacts and plan healthier and more successful projects.

Agency scientists have wide-ranging expertise that allows for this broad thinking and consideration. Agency scientists, like myself, provide advice and guidance on methods, indicators and, in my case as a social scientist working in environmental science, often help to expand the idea of what counts as data and evidence and to highlight research and stories of historically excluded people and populations.

I was very fortunate to receive several scholarships to support my learning. Without those, I would not have continued my academic career. I left academia to find a career in science that offered more work-life balance when I became a parent. One thing that remains a challenge is working to translate and carve out a place for social science and feminist knowledge and evidence in spaces where the physical sciences are the norm. When we work on diverse teams, with diverse knowledge and disciplines, we create better policy.

When we think about science broadly, we realize that every career path has an element of science. Every challenging and complex problem requires information, critical thinking and analysis, which are key elements of science. If you are curious and have questions about the world around you, then I would definitely recommend a career in science. The more diverse and curious women and girls we have thinking about complex problems, the better the solutions to those problems will be.

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