New Brunswick Social Policy Research Network

Dr. Kelly Bronson

eng-kb1) What is your official current position and title?

Acting Director of Science and Technology Studies, St. Thomas University—this program explores the interaction between society and science & technology. (As well, STU has nominated me for a Canada Research Chair position in Environmentally and Socially Responsible Innovation).

2) What is your educational background?

My earliest training is in biology (BScH, Queen’s University) and I worked for a short time as a lab bench geneticist studying some of North America’s most invasive wetland plant species. I was happy in this work because I was solving pieces of larger puzzles that had real ecological significance. However, in 2001 I found myself curious about widespread public resistance to genetically modified foods (or GMOs). I realized then that I would be happier exploring questions at the science—society interface, and I decided that I wanted to work to bridge gaps between society and science and technology. Specifically, my research focuses on bringing societal perspectives into the governance of controversial technologies—from GMOs, to fracking, to big data—in order to maximize their sustainability, both social and environmental. My graduate training is in sociology and cultural studies (MA, University of Saskatchewan and PhD, York University).

3) Talk a little about your career path?  Where did your passion for the research/work that you do originate and how did it develop?

My research focusing on the society-science relationship is motivated by an interest in building sustainable human-technology-environment partnerships. This is an interest that was cultivated during my earliest contributions as a lab-bench ecologist though I believe I have always cared about the environment and our societal relationship with nature. My paternal grandmother really instilled in me a love of nature (she even looked like Rachel Carson!) and I recently found an essay I had written for a grade 10 social studies class titled, “Biological Management of Wolves in Algonquin Park: Underestimating Complexity”. So perhaps I was always on the path to what I do now; but it was really a few inspiring, university teachers who helped me ask probing questions that led me to leave practicing science and find ways to link it with societal needs and environmental demands. 

4) Tell us about one or two of your current projects?


I have just received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant to study the application of big data—digital tools for collecting and analyzing large volumes of information—in Canadian agriculture. There has been almost no scholarly work looking carefully at the “digital revolution” in farming and it’s really happening: John Deere, for example, fits all of its tractors with sensors that stream data about soil and crop conditions and the corporation invites farmers to subscribe and pay for access to information that can help inform decisions, such as where to plant crops.

I will be interviewing farmers, app designers and policy makers, and then hopefully telling a really well-rounded story about what’s happening with the digital revolution and specifically whether these new tools disrupt or reproduce power relationships in the food system. I will be asking questions about the context of production and management of big data agricultural tools. For example, Does it matter if tools are produced and controlled by government or large agribusiness for the kinds of implications they raise?


I have several ongoing projects looking at the energy sector in Atlantic Canada. One project uses something called “deliberative public engagement” to incorporate community level needs into decisions on energy innovations. In June 2016, with a colleague and post-doctoral researcher at University of Guelph, I hosted a special kind of discussion called a deliberation with 13 members of the public on the subject of energy technologies in New Brunswick. The group of citizens arrived at a common set of values they feel should inform energy policy-making, whether it’s pipeline or hydraulic fracturing or renewables decisions.

5) How do you see your research/work in terms of possibly contributing to evidence-based public policy?


I have signed a contract with McGill-Queen’s University Press to publish the big data research into a book that will be out in early 2019. My hope is that this book will be useful to farmers and decision-makers in the private and public sectors because it will add to understandings about how big data applied to agriculture ought to be understood and, importantly, managed. The book will lay out how big data are being constructed and used in Canadian agriculture, by whom they are being used and for whose benefit, and the possible limitations or biases of the datasets and tools under study. Governance actors from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Canadian Federation of Agriculture have already expressed interest in the project.


My hope is that through research events like the June public deliberation I’m developing a set of robust (“tried and true”) methods that policy actors could use for incorporating citizen/community needs into decisions about New Brunswick’s energy future.Energy decisions are often contentious ones—like with Energy East. But even thinking beyond fossil fuels, these methods could really help a priori (before any real decisions have been made) to shape a future based around renewables, which is part of what the Premier’s Office sees as economically viable for the province. The new Growth Plan focuses on local strengths in smart grid technology and biomass, which is great. However, it’s not just the technical work (like the research happening at UNB with Siemens on smart grid) that needs to be done to grow this alternatives economy. Social infrastructure also needs to be secured to make these technologies relevant to New Brunswickers. For example, preliminary survey research has shown that relative to citizens in other provinces, NB citizens are hesitant about adopting renewables innovations, which is a problem if you’re wanting to grow household level production and a smart grid based on the adoption of these tools. My methods/research could help by bridging gaps between community and policy-making by, for example, finding out what’s at root of this hesitance. Perhaps it’s a matter of needing to grow energy literacy but it may not be that simple.

6) Discuss any past achievements that were significant to your professional path?  Have any contributed to the promotion of evidence-based public policy?

I got a taste for both the difficulty and the enormous rewards associated with public engagement in policy-making when I worked on developing the Toronto Food Strategy, a piece of overarching policy within Toronto Public Health that was the first of its kind (in Toronto) to engage community and activist groups in the policy-making. There had been consultation but not engagement in the development of a policy document like happened with the food strategy. I really learned a lot from the process and from the then-Chair of the Toronto Food Policy Council, Dr. Wayne Roberts.

I then carried this experience into my dissertation research, which revealed a disconnect between farmer concerns with genetically modified seeds—those genetically altered to work with agricultural chemicals—and regulatory actors’ assessments of these seeds. Details from my qualitative interviews laying out farmer experiences with these technologies ended up getting incorporated, in a minimal way, into a revision of the federal Biotechnology Strategy.

These early experiences gave me a skillset such that I now get brought into amazing opportunities to bring my research goals into practical experience. For instance, I currently sit on a 6 person Advisory Council to NB Power on a comparative environmental review of the Mactaquac Dam. As the only social scientist among a group of hydrologists and engineers, my main role is to help the utility weigh the social consequences of any decision on the dam.

7) Describe in a couple of sentences your involvement with NBSPRN and how your relationship with the Network has contributed to your research/work and/or to social/economic policy?

NBSPRN has been a collaborator on grant applications and has really helped me to think through the knowledge mobilization aspects of my research. I find the resources provided by NBSPRN helpful in knowing how to connect my research with those people in policy and community who might benefit from it, which is crucially important to me.

8) Any last thoughts? Any additional information or anecdotes that you think would add interest or a personal touch, perhaps something that readers would not expect.

I think sometimes people are surprised to learn that I come from a working class family; I’ve worked since I was 13 years old and got my first job working “under the table” at a collections agency doing filing. I think this is relevant because even though I have a fancy job now, my past enables me think from a variety of perspectives, which is helpful given the kind of research that I do. At its most basic, my research involves bridging different perspectives together—scientists and public, public and policy-makers, humans and environment.

Copyright 2013
A Ginger Design