Why Canada needs more scientists running for office

Whether it’s a global pandemic or global warming, we need political leaders with the expertise to make evidence-based policy decisions that will affect us all

Photo by Jasmine Chong

As a scientist, I was trained to believe that facts and rigorous evidence were inherently right and that rational thinking would inevitably win the day. How wrong and naive I was.

The reality is that decisions are often made by politicians who see facts as supplementary to arguments of emotion, quick to choose actions based on opinion polls rather than scientific data. We see this in the pandemic response, with some governments reluctant to listen to the science and act quickly, leading to more prolonged shutdowns.

Even when scientific advice is made available and clear, some refuse to listen. Last month the director of Ontario’s COVID-19 scientific advisory table almost resigned out of frustration because the scientific advice to implement better protections for front-line workers fell on deaf ears. Now Premier Doug Ford is keeping outdoor activities closed despite the science table advising against doing so. First the Ford government opened up too quickly, against the advice of science, to appeal to business owners, and now they refuse to allow outdoor activities, to show that strong action is being taken on COVID. Both efforts were misdirected, and both continue to be ineffective. Shutdowns are difficult, especially for small business owners. But we could have avoided the shutdowns of the third wave if we had not prematurely opened after the second; the economy ultimately suffers more when decisions are taken with a short-term view.

We need to be doing more than just listening to the science – we need to be acting upon it too. Around the world, countries that made science-based decisions, collaborated and acted swiftly fared better than those that did not. A newly released report by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response found that open data and science were key to developing a vaccine in record time and that the countries that devalued science and denied the impact of the pandemic suffered the greatest harm with the highest infection and death rates.

Even as we round the corner of this crisis, a larger, more threatening, crisis looms: climate change. Here the science has been clear for decades and continues to get clearer as every year brings higher temperatures, more unpredictable weather and natural disasters that threaten our communities with flooding and forest fires.

While Canada’s newly announced climate target of reducing emissions by more than 40% by 2030 is welcome, it does not go far enough. Canada is the only G7 nation to have greenhouse gas emissions increase since the Paris Agreement. As a result, Canada needs to reduce emissions 60% by 2030 to reach our stated net-zero goals. Just as deaths are a lagging indicator of COVID infections, climate change is a lagging indicator of CO2 emissions.

Global clean technology activity is expected to be worth more than $2.5 trillion by 2022. If Canada does not act now to invest in this coming transition like our allies in Europe and the United States have, we will be left behind.

Whether it is a global pandemic or global warming, we need political leaders with the expertise to make evidence-based policy decisions that will affect us all. Unfortunately, only 7% of parliamentarians have a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) background. Sure, we can have leaders who listen to the science, but what happens if they don’t really understand it? Or worse, what if they understand but choose to ignore it for political gain?

Unfortunately, scientists rarely attract the attention of political parties and often carry the stereotype of being poor communicators. After all, if there is one skill a politician needs, it’s the ability to communicate to their constituents.

The image of the nerdy antisocial scientist content to remain in their lab with their beakers is dated and inaccurate, however. Today’s generation of scientists go on to create venture-backed start-ups, develop impactful policy and quickly rise to positions of power in multinational corporations. Two of the most influential female heads of state of the last century, U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, both received degrees in chemistry, the latter a PhD. Regardless of how you feel about their politics, the impact they have had on the world is undeniable.

Science and technology, while important and necessary, are not sufficient to address the crises we face. You can be the most brilliant scientist with the best technology, but unless you can convince a policy-maker to support it and a market to buy it, it will sit on the shelf. This is why I’ve decided to take a leave from my dream job as the youngest-ever director at the National Research Council to run for office for the federal Green Party in Toronto.

I’m running because we must move faster to combat the threat of climate change and sustainably renew our society and economy. I’m running because we need more diversity in Parliament and more science in policy. I’m running because I want to lower the barriers for other non-traditional candidates to consider running, because a diverse government is a robust and resilient one.

I hope that my run inspires other scientists to consider running as well, regardless of party, because Canada needs them now more than ever.

Phil De Luna is a scientist and cleantech innovator turned first-time candidate and aspiring politician. He is running for the Green Party in Toronto-St. Paul’s in the next federal election.

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