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Margin Notes

Bringing science to bear on policy

Preston Manning and David Suzuki discuss how to get politicians to take science more seriously.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | MAY 13 2010

It was certainly an interesting pairing: Preston Manning and David Suzuki together on the same stage yesterday to explore – as the program described it – “why science matters, from science literacy as a building block for democracy to science as a basis for sound public policy.”

Mr. Manning was the founder of the Reform Party and a Member of Parliament from 1993 to 2001. David Suzuki is a scientist, well-known environmentalist and popular broadcaster.

The two were appearing in the opening keynote session at the second Science Policy Symposium organized by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and being held in Gatineau, Quebec, across the river from Ottawa, until tomorrow. The symposium has as its aim to strengthen science policy in Canada, an extremely important issue that deserves greater attention by the public, policy makers and government.

I admit I was hoping for perhaps a bit of fireworks between the two speakers, but they addressed each other politely, if somewhat formally, and mostly avoided any overt provocation.

Mr. Manning, who has had a longstanding interest in science, opened with the observation that “an increasing number of issues” faced by policy makers are science-based, yet “there are problems in bringing science to bear on public policy.”

Repeating a comment he made at last fall’s Canadian Science Policy Conference, he observed that there are very few scientifically trained individuals in Parliament or on the parties’ political staffs. It’s not for wont of trying, he says. “I have been in political recruitment all my life,” he said, but “scientists turn me down.” They’re not interested in politics.

Mr. Manning also said there is a communications gap between the science community and politicians. Scientists, he said, when speaking to politicians, need to be able to convey in an “easily communicable form” the relevance of a particular science issue. “If a minister cannot see within about 90 seconds how to communicate the position, then you’re in trouble,” he says.

Mr. Manning called for a national conference on science communication and said he also thinks sessions on this topic should be held at learned-society meetings.

Dr. Suzuki essentially agreed that MPs have “terrible science knowledge.” Most politicians are from law or business backgrounds, which he said “skews priorities.” But, he added, the solution is not necessarily to elect more scientists but to elect “people who take science seriously.” Dr. Suzuki also said all scientists should be obligated to make their science understandable to the public, and should be willing to share their knowledge with journalists.

While I think it’s true, to some extent, that scientists could do a better job at communicating the importance and relevance of what they do, I also think big strides have been made in this area. Many researchers today are aware of their public role, and in many cases the research granting councils require them to make their work publicly accessible.

The bigger issue – and one that was raised by the moderator – is what to do when governments don’t listen to, or don’t want to hear, what the scientists are saying. Some would point to the issue of climate change as an instance of this, but I think an even more egregious example is the federal government’s “tough on crime” agenda. You would be hard-pressed to find many sociologists, criminologists, psychologists, even economists, who believe incarcerating more people and treating them more harshly will reduce crime or otherwise help society.

Mr. Manning, in a later remark not directly in response to the above, came back to the necessity of getting science-literate people engaged in politics. I’ll give him the final word: “If you choose to not involve yourself in the politics of your country, you will be governed by those who do. If you don’t like those who do, if you don’t like their direction, if you don’t like their insensitivity or ignorance to science, that’s exactly what you’ll get if you don’t get involved.”

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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