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Manning: an unlikely ally for universities?

Preston Manning has been a knowledgeable supporter of science for years

BY DANIEL MCCABE | JAN 11 2010

Recently, relations between the federal government and Canada’s university-based scientists haven’t been especially smooth. Researchers sharply criticized small cuts to the country’s major granting agencies, while the Conservative government complains it doesn’t receive proper credit for the billions of dollars it directed towards university science in the last federal budget.

A potential bridge builder between the two sides has emerged on the scene, albeit one who some might regard as having an unlikely pedigree for the job: Preston Manning, founder of the now-defunct Reform Party and a longtime leading figure in conservative political circles.

Mr. Manning was the keynote speaker at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Toronto in October, and his remarks generated a favourable buzz among many of the scientists in attendance. Last May, after he spoke at another policy forum, Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells wrote that “A few university types were surprised that Manning was as thoughtful and well-informed on these shiny techy subjects. A few Reform veterans and even one or two of the reporters in attendance weren’t surprised at all.”

Mr. Manning has a longstanding interest in science. As an undergraduate at the University of Calgary, he studied physics before switching to economics. He once served as the official Opposition critic for science and technology in Parliament and, after retiring from federal politics, taught a course at the University of Toronto on the political ramifications of genetic science. He continues to be active in science and technology circles, chairing the board of trustees for the National Institute for Nanotechnology and sitting on the board of governors for the Council of Canadian Academies, a non-profit organization that assesses the scientific dimensions of public policy issues.

Indeed, Mr. Manning is one of the few Canadian political figures who might have the latest issue of the science journal Nature lying on his nightstand (he is a subscriber) and, to Mr. Manning’s mind, that’s part of the problem. “I’m very conscious of the fact that in our Parliament, there is a dearth of people who have any kind of science background,” he says. He encourages more scientists to consider running for office.

By his estimation, only about eight members of Parliament out of 308 have more than a passing acquaintance with science-related issues. That lack of expertise gets in the way of meaningful debates about the country’s approach to science, he says. “People avoid talking about things they don’t know much about.”

Trouble is, many of the most urgent issues facing the country today have a scientific dimension. “That’s true if you’re talking about health care or about the environment or about promoting a knowledge-based economy.”

At a recent Montreal event organized by Media@McGill (a new academic unit at McGill University that examines media, technology and culture), Mr. Manning said, “The modern poli-tical party is basically a mechanism for fighting elections.” The parties have very little energy left over for deep thinking about policy issues – especially about science, he added.

“There is a big hole for all [parties] on science, technology and innovation. Go look at their party platforms. There’s a simplistic two or three paragraphs and if you prick below that, there’s nothing.”

In his work with the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, a conservative-minded NGO he co-founded in 2005, Mr. Manning identified 120 things “that you and your friends better know about if you’re going to run a provincial or federal government.” For most of these issues, think tanks or policy institutes exist that political parties can turn to for guidance, but almost none of them have much to say about science.

The university science community has an opportunity to fill that gap, asserts Mr. Manning – if it plays its cards right. For one thing, when scientists offer expert opinions, they should be careful not to come across as too self-serving. “If you’re asking for more money at the same time that you’re offering advice, the government will be fairly skeptical about the advice that you are offering,” he counsels.

Scientists also need to put themselves in the shoes of the people they’re dealing with: skip the jargon, communicate clearly and get to the point quickly. “If politicians can’t see within 30 to 60 seconds how to communicate your message to a larger public, your position is in trouble, whatever its merits.” When the government was developing the framework for its science and technology policy, few of the briefs from the science community met these criteria, says Mr. Manning.

While politicians are accused of not being very interested in the work performed by science researchers, Mr. Manning believes both sides bear some responsibility. “When I think back to my time in office and the invitations I received to come and speak at university events, they almost all came from people in journalism or law or political science. Very rarely are politicians asked to talk to people in biology or physics or chemistry.”

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