Mark Lautens is a J.B. Jones Distinguished Professor at the University of Toronto.
Another election has come and, mercifully, gone. During the recent federal campaign, the subject of climate change was front and centre, yet, as I watched the debates and read what candidates had to say about the issue, it struck me that most politicians in Canada (aspiring or elected) lack any kind of scientific background. With the exception of climate change – the most pressing issue we are facing, to be sure – science and science policy were absent from the debates, missing from party platforms, and was barely mentioned by those running for office.
So I asked myself: Why are scientists working from the sidelines instead of on the front lines? What I mean by that is why not run as candidates, instead of pressing elected officials after the fact to address our concerns? Why don’t we try to get elected?
I am not just talking about seeking office to direct more funding towards research. Rather, we need experts to directly contribute to science-rich issues that impact our daily lives. Climate change is not the only challenge facing Canadians where facts are needed more than rhetoric. Thoughtful discussion from a variety of perspectives on subjects ranging from cybersecurity to energy creation and storage, artificial intelligence and personalized medicine, would all be of huge value to our country.
There’s no simple explanation for the dearth of scientists and researchers in politics. But you don’t have to look too deeply into the backgrounds of our parliamentarians to see that other professions are much better represented. Those trained in business and law seemingly dominate our landscape, even for many of those who hold portfolios rich in decisions that require scientific literacy. (At least the most recent Minister of Science and Sport, Kirsty Duncan, is a health geographer.)
Hearing how policies will affect different sectors of the economy is certainly essential to the running of government or when building party platforms. Yet some voices are just not being heard.
The simplest explanation might be that no one asks us scientists to run for office. It may not easy to get yourself noticed by the party machinery, when your circle of contacts is orthogonal to those in power. Scientists are rarely high profile and celebrated in this country, so few become household names and “star candidates” like those who are leaders in business, sports or the arts (astronaut Marc Garneau, Canada’s most recent Minister of Transport, is a notable exception). If the goal is to create some buzz around a candidate, introspective scientists may not really fit the bill.
Additionally, the last thing parties probably want is to be burdened by a caucus of scientists throwing around undeniable and unpleasant facts. Hard truths told by people not so inclined to hold back may not be welcomed in our current climate; keeping them on the sidelines helps avoid conflicting opinions.
We may be in the midst of a vicious cycle where the rise in personal attacks and the tendency to avoid speaking plainly makes entering politics less and less appealing to those who, armed with data, have been trained to give an unvarnished opinion.
Of course it takes decades to build up expertise in science and become a respected scholar. Leaving that behind to enter politics is more or less a death sentence, if you remotely consider returning to your profession. It is unclear how to maintain competency while absent from your laboratory or students, knowing full well that after four years (or maybe less, in the case of the current minority government) you might get turfed, even if you did a good job. The voters may simply want change or dislike your party’s leader.
So it is lack of demand, or lack of supply? Probably both.
My view is that if more scientists were key figures in every political party, there would be far less polarization. Evidence-based decision making might take over from half-truths or worse. The public would be well served if more debate focused on how to best implement facts than to argue if there are facts at all.
Perhaps party leaders could insist diversity be broadened to consider under-represented areas of expertise, as well as gender and race. It is 2019, and science is part of our lives. Our politicians should not only look like their constituents, but have relevant knowledge and training, when making decisions that are going to affect us all.
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