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Preston Manning: Proselytizer of science Add to ...

The ballroom is packed with a mix of grey hair and young faces grouped around tables still scattered with the remains of lunch. The overflow sits crammed along a back wall near the coat racks.

Preston Manning warms up the crowd with some jokes about his pursuit of truth as a young man and later as leader of the Reform Party. When his talk turns prescriptive, several begin to take notes. A line forms at the microphone when it's time for questions, and, at the end, he gets a standing ovation.

It's a scene that's played out countless times during his career, with business crowds and party faithful. Only this time, the people springing to their feet aren't riding workers or chamber of commerce members. They're scientists.

"He's the science guy in Canada," said Mehrdad Hariri, the young researcher who organized the Toronto talk, a science policy conference that Mr. Manning agreed to speak at without a fee. "In Canada, basically, we do not have any other people of his stature when it comes to science policy. He knows the issues inside and out."

In labs and lecture halls across Canada, Mr. Manning has reinvented himself, moving from a right-wing, populist political leader to a coach for the science cause, deciphering the mysteries of the political mind to some of the brightest researchers in the country.

Given his political past, faith in free-market forces and firmly held religious beliefs, his new-found role has raised more than a few eyebrows in the ivory tower. But he sees the current disconnect between researchers and political power brokers as a problem of culture, not a bias against science.

So has he become a kind of horse whisperer for science? "I guess that's a good Western expression," he chuckled during a recent interview. "I don't know if scientists would like that."

Although he's used to breaking political bread with the likes of climate-change deniers and creationists, Mr. Manning sees no contradictions in his new role.

"I'm a green Conservative," he explains, stretching out the double "ee" in a way that adds a sense of urgency to the label.

He's taken up the cause at a critical time. Budgets are tight, competition is rising and issues such as global warming and pandemics fill policy agendas. Despite the Harper government declaring its commitment to innovation and research, the people on the front lines worry that their voices are not being heard.

In the United States, President Barack Obama has made science a centrepiece of his agenda, vowing to restore it to its "rightful place" as he stood in the bright February sunshine on Inauguration Day. No such pledge has come in Canada, and no leader has taken up the researchers' mantle in the same way.

For its part, the Harper government complains it has not received due credit for its bricks-and-mortar investments and new initiatives designed to attract top scientists to Canada. But questions about how research funding is handed out, the elimination of the position of science adviser and the federal government's actions on issues such as climate change have only heightened the sense among many scientists that they are being sidelined.

"I think they would very much like a signal from the government that it really does see science and technology as important," Mr. Manning said.

His interest in science is long held. He majored in physics before switching to economics in his final year at the University of Alberta. His political memoirs detail his teenage forays into basic research in a homemade lab, even convincing a hired hand on his family's farm that he was manufacturing "the Bomb."

Mr. Manning jokes that he switched his major to economics from physics because he couldn't hack the math. A premier's son, he entered politics after a consulting career, quickly gaining a national profile as the leader of a powerful new Western populist movement.

Those days seemed far away this week as Mr. Manning shared the stage with broadcaster and environmental icon David Suzuki at a conference in Gatineau, Que., organized by the union representing professional federal workers. He and Dr. Suzuki were paired up to show different perspectives on science policy, a spokeswoman for the event said, and to see how the two sides might meet.

"There are a lot of things that we agree on," Dr. Suzuki said. "Our big disagreement is he thinks the free market is going to solve everything, which is total bullshit."

Asked about his deep Christian convictions, Mr. Manning said they do not put him offside with scientific thought. One can think that genetic mutations and natural selection have something to do with the development of life, he explains, and also believe there is a direction to things that comes from God.

"Science explains what is going on," he said.

Follow on Twitter: @lizchurchto

 

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