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A call to integrate science into politics

Former politician says issue applies to all parties

A divorce may yet be avoided in the often-shaky marriage between science and politics. This rapprochement was started last Thursday by Darin Barney, a professor from the McGill Department of Art History and Communications, and Preston Manning, president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, during an event organized by Media@McGill. Entitled “On the Politics of Science and Technology in Canada,” the talk provided a forum to examine the challenges that exist in using science to create public policy.

Manning studied physics at the University of Alberta for three years, but chose to transfer into the economics program before the end of his degree. As the leader of the former Reform Party, he represented Calgary Southwest in Parliament from 1993 to 2002. During his time there, he was the opposition critic for science and technology. From this vantage point, he discussed why science does not play a more prominent role in the legislative work of government and why scientific consensus sometimes takes a backseat to political expediency.

“I’m conscious of the communications gap between the political community and the scientific community,” Manning explained. “I try to bridge that divide.”

Barney, however, challenged the Conservative record by listing several actions taken by the present government since coming into power. He mentioned was Environment Minister Rona Ambrose forbidding a public servant from promoting his own novel in 2006 because it discussed climate change. Another example, from 2008, was Health Minister Tony Clement, who questioned in a speech to the Canadian Medical Association the ethics of physicians who support safe injection sites.

Manning rejected the idea that these claims are evidence of an anti-science bias in the Conservative Party. He pointed out that instead, there’s simply a shortage of scientific talent in all political parties. Manning claimed to be interested in developing intellectual capital by getting more scientists elected into public office.

“There’s a profound misconception that confuses Canadian Conservatives with Republicans,” countered Manning. “The challenge with Conservatives, and all political parties, is an apathy to applying science to what it is doing.”

To Manning’s credit, he is not a government apologist. Part of the discussion focused on examining the present government’s shortcomings in addressing the concerns of the scientific community on climate change, and he did not dance around the issue.

“Conservatives have not applied their own view to the preservation of the environment,” Manning reflected. “The principle behind fiscal conservatism is living within your means.”

This admission should not be taken as a shift in his politics. Manning simply believes that there are market-driven solutions to the environment that the government has not applied.

“Conservatives should specialize in harnessing pricing mechanisms in order to address climate change,” he counselled.

Manning argued that such challenging issues require more than government action; there must be a commitment by the general population to a change in lifestyle. He observed that private enterprise can be very successful in tackling such problems, and that the private sector would inevitably have to take part if these issues were to be fixed. Pretending otherwise, he argued, would only do more harm.

“You can condition [people] that governmental intervention is a solution to everything,” he said.

A conversation between an academic and a retired politician may seem unlikely to effect change, but the participants took a different view. Part of the problem when debating science with politicians is that during a campaign, everything factors into political calculus: debates are not framed on the merits of the issue, but on whose image will benefit from them.

Manning suggested that our officials might take up the offer of discussing their views more often if they had a place available that allowed for neutral dialogue, such as the one provided on Thursday. In short, he called for a forum where the main concern is not about winning.