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Science minister won't confirm belief in evolution Add to ...

Canada's science minister, the man at the centre of the controversy over federal funding cuts to researchers, won't say if he believes in evolution.

"I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate," Gary Goodyear, the federal Minister of State for Science and Technology, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

A funding crunch, exacerbated by cuts in the January budget, has left many senior researchers across the county scrambling to find the money to continue their experiments.

Some have expressed concern that Mr. Goodyear, a chiropractor from Cambridge, Ont., is suspicious of science, perhaps because he is a creationist.

When asked about those rumours, Mr. Goodyear said such conversations are not worth having.

"Obviously, I have a background that supports the fact I have read the science on muscle physiology and neural chemistry," said the minister, who took chemistry and physics courses as an undergraduate at the University of Waterloo.

"I do believe that just because you can't see it under a microscope doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It could mean we don't have a powerful enough microscope yet. So I'm not fussy on this business that we already know everything. ... I think we need to recognize that we don't know."

Asked to clarify if he was talking about the role of a creator, Mr. Goodyear said that the interview was getting off topic.

Brian Alters, founder and director of the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill University in Montreal, was shocked by the minister's comments.

Evolution is a scientific fact, Dr. Alters said, and the foundation of modern biology, genetics and paleontology. It is taught at universities and accepted by many of the world's major religions, he said.

"It is the same as asking the gentleman, 'Do you believe the world is flat?' and he doesn't answer on religious grounds," said Dr. Alters. "Or gravity, or plate tectonics, or that the Earth goes around the sun."

Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said he was flabbergasted that the minister would invoke his religion when asked about evolution.

"The traditions of science and the reliance on testable and provable knowledge has served us well for several hundred years and have been the basis for most of our advancement. It is inconceivable that a government would have a minister of science that rejects the basis of scientific discovery and traditions," he said.

Mr. Goodyear's evasive answers on evolution are unlikely to reassure the scientists who are skeptical about him, and they bolster the notion that there is a divide between the minister and the research community.

Many scientists fear 10 years of gains will be wiped out by a government that doesn't understand the importance of basic, curiosity-driven research, which history shows leads to the big discoveries. They worry Canada's best will decamp for the United States, where President Barack Obama has put $10-billion (U.S) into medical research as part of his plan to stimulate economic growth.

But in the interview, Mr. Goodyear defended his government's approach and the January budget, and said it stacks up well when compared to what Mr. Obama is doing.

He also talked about how passionate he is about science and technology - including basic research - and how his life before politics shaped his views.

Now 51, Mr. Goodyear grew up in Cambridge. His parents divorced when he was young. His father was a labourer, his mother a seamstress who worked three jobs to the support her three children.

His first summer job was laying asphalt when he was 12. At 13, he got a part-time job at a garage, pumping gas. At 17, the young entrepreneur started his own company selling asphalt and sealants.

He was in the technical stream at high school, taking welding and automotive mechanics. No one in has family had ever gone to university, but he secretly started taking academic credits at night school so he could get admitted to the University of Waterloo. He didn't want his family to know.

He took chemistry, physics, statistics and kinesiology, and was fascinated by the mechanics of human joints. After three years of university, he was admitted to the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, where he was class president and valedictorian.

He had his own practice in Cambridge, where he settled down with his wife Valerie. He worked as chiropractor for two decades, and set up private clinics to treat people who had been injured in car accidents, sometimes using devices that he invented to help them rebuild their strength and range of motion.

He had sold that business when, before the 2004 federal election, a friend approached him about running for the Conservative nomination in Cambridge. His two children were then in their late teens, so he agreed. He took the nomination and won the seat. He was re-elected in 2006, and again in 2008, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper named him science minister.

"Now I have got a portfolio that I am absolutely passionate about and frankly connected to," he said, adding that his days of experimenting with engines in high school automotive class gave him an appreciation for what it feels like to come up with something new.

"When I was in high school, we were already tweaking with a coil that would wrap around the upper [radiator]hose and it got an extra five miles to the gallon. ... So I've been there on this discovery stuff."

Commercializing research - the focus of the government's science and technology policy - is an area where Canada needs to make improvements, he says.

"If we are going to be serious about saving lives and improving life around this planet, if we are serious about helping the environment, then we are going to have to get some of these technologies out of the labs onto the factory floors. Made. Produced. Sold. And that is going to fulfill that talk. So yes, we have to do all of it, we have to do discovery ... but it can't end there."

 

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