Science, policy and politics with Dr. Peter Donnelly

On Oct. 2, Dr. Peter Donnelly, President and CEO of Public Health Ontario, will discuss the interplay and interaction of science, policy and politics
Dr. Peter Donnelly will deliver his lecture on Oct. 2

Dr. Peter Donnelly is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Public Health Ontario, the agency which provides evidence for health policy, and runs the public health laboratory and surveillance systems for Canada’s biggest province.

Dr. Donnelly was the Deputy Chief Medical Officer to the Scottish Government from 2004-2008, during some contentious public health debates. His is known for a range of public health initiatives in areas such as tobacco control legislation, alcohol policy and sexual health.

Dr. Donnelly will be giving a public lecture entitled Science, Policy, and Politics at the Institute for Health and Social Policy (IHSP), on Tuesday, October 2, at 2:30, followed by a reception, at Charles Meredith House (1130 Pine Avenue West). The event is free, but please RSVP gabriella.kranz@mcgill.ca.

What are some emerging trends in Public Health?

When it’s working, public health is almost invisible to the general populace. However, one can look to the measles outbreaks in Europe, and elsewhere, as concrete examples of the need for public health intervention, in this case, the impact of vaccine hesitancy, and raising awareness about the importance of vaccination to protect against illness. The purpose of public health is to protect and promote the health of communities, whether that is through vaccination, smoking cessation or healthy living, or tackling the global threat of antibiotic resistance.

On the face of it science, policy and politics might be at loggerheads …how do these things align?

I will be reflecting on initiatives I led, including implementing a public health approach to addressing violence, and implementing a smoke-free agenda in Scotland. Science helps inform policy and politics. Politics can drive policy, and influence a scientific agenda. While there can be tensions among the three, the interplay and interaction between them are part of a collaborative relationship where each informs and influences the other. That was certainly the case in Scotland.

What is happening to science-based policy-making by governments?

Elected parties and leaders have a direction and mandate given to them by the populace. Our purpose at Public Health Ontario is not to dictate policy, or to be oppositional, but rather ensure that the scientific facts, where they are known, are made available in an accessible way. No minister or elected official should be left in a situation where they must make a decision without first having up-to-date evidence that can help them make an informed decision.

What do you want to leave in the minds of those who attend your talk?

How you communicate the evidence to decision-makers is as important as gathering the evidence. It needs to be understandable, so that decision makers can see the applicability of the science to address the policy issues. The process is rarely easy and can be quite lengthy. But in my experience, science and evidence have always had a significant and vital role in helping facilitate change, whether it be in broad behaviour change (reducing smoking, for example), or in gathering evidence to help keep people safe (such as preventing the spread of serious communicable diseases or investigating infection control lapses).

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