Politics + science = YES

Meet visionaries working to get more STEM professionals elected

Welcome to At The End Of The Day! I’m Hannah Sung and I write this newsletter to process a firehose of daily news. If you like what you’re reading, why not subscribe?

Before 2020, I didn’t know what R0 meant (the mathematical term to describe how contagious a virus is) and wouldn’t have known how to pronounce it (“R naught”) had I not, like a complete sadist, streamed Contagion during spring lockdown.

I also, more recently, realized I couldn’t truly explain to you how vaccines work. [1]

But during this pandemic, we’ve all gotten a crash course in immunology (and like you, I am intensely delighted it involved Dolly Parton). [2]

Regardless of my own lack of expert scientific knowledge, prior to COVID, I would have bet that government leadership of any political stripe would “do the right thing” faced with an urgent and deadly global pandemic. I also assumed that “the right thing” would be rooted in science. 

However, there seems to be an ideological showdown that amounts to an ongoing wrestling match between science vs politics.

Whyyyy?

It begs the question: What would happen if more elected politicians had a science background?

A wrestling GIF, always room for a first. But imagine! Science and politics doing this…


I recently stumbled on ElectSTEM on Twitter. It’s a brand new initiative created by three Canadian scientists. Entrepreneur Darren Anderson, York University professor Chris Caputo and Monica Stolar, a research and industry relations officer at Simon Fraser University, all come from a chemistry background.

The seed was planted for ElectSTEM when Darren read an opinion essay called Do We Have Enough Scientists in Parliament? written by sisters Vanessa and Molly Sung (though we share a last name, we are not related but I think their work is extremely cool, FWIW). [3]

After seeing the article, Darren kept tweeting that someone should do something to fix this problem.

“Vanessa called me on it and said, ‘Yeah, it would be nice if someone did something,’” Darren laughs. 

And so Darren did, in collaboration with Chris and Monica. ElectSTEM is now up and running with a long-term solution sparked by an urgent crisis. I connected with Darren and Chris to learn more about how to fix the disconnect between science and politics.


What is your goal with ElectSTEM?

DARREN: Our goal is to help make science nonpartisan, by engaging more scientists in politics.

There was a really interesting talk at the Canadian Science Policy Conference where [Reform Party founder and former MP] Preston Manning was suggesting to use the language “cross-partisan” rather than “non-partisan,” because politics is inherently partisan. And we're still digesting that element. 

But the mission is really to help science become non-partisan, or cross-partisan, by engaging more scientists and engineers in running for public office. There's research that shows our elected officials rely on each other for information and feedback. We obviously have an amazing public service in Canada, but as far as being able to assess things from a scientific perspective, we think that having elected officials helps. We also think that having elected officials with science and engineering backgrounds across political parties, helps ensure that science doesn't become a partisan issue. 

The underlying idea that science and engineering is an important foundational base for society and we can continue to ensure that it's cross-partisan and nonpartisan, by having more science and engineering-based elected officials, in government at all levels — municipal, provincial, and federal.

I love the idea of people with scientific background being in elected positions, especially when you see what's happening in Ontario not taking Public Health Ontario advice. [4]

But when we talk about science becoming partisan, it's already happened in the States. And, you know, I'm, I don't even want to mention Donald Trump's name. It's like Voldemort, because it's like, can't we just be done with him already? But the cultural impact is not really about him. These ideas are in the culture. Where do you think Canada is at in terms of the idea of science becoming partisan?

CHRIS:

There are a couple of polls that have been done, which actually show Canadians do not believe we're as polarized about scientific issues, but it's still a slippery slope, right? There's a social contract between science and the general public that, without proper science communication, can get frayed. Parties may take a different approach to how they would solve scientific issues such as climate change. One party may prefer a carbon tax, one party may prefer subsidies. But if everyone agrees on the premise of the science, then hopefully, the messaging will not be as polarized. It would be like, here are solutions rather than “climate change is not man-made.”

DARREN:

I think one of the drivers of polarization is that scientists tend to be a little “ivory tower.” There tends to be this, you know, “Hey, general public, this is what you should do, because we know what's good for you.” And I think that having more scientists directly engaged in the political process helps make for a more participatory system with science, and helps ensure more broad societal buy-in.

I think there can be a lot of blame placed on people not having enough scientific literacy. 

DARREN: And I hate the phrase “scientific literacy.” This is something that I'm really passionate about. I think the framing of scientific literacy can be viewed as insulting, right? I mean, people don't want to be called illiterate. And so when you say, “Hey, you know, you need to improve your scientific literacy,” that's an attack. That's not a collaborative approach to developing a solution to some of these problems. But I agree with you that I think that the existence of that framing illustrates some of the challenges associated with building a participatory science-based approach to these issues.

CHRIS: The ivory tower mentality Darren alluded to, it definitely happens with scientists. It’s almost like an arrogance, like, “You don't understand what I'm talking about? Well, too bad.” And there’s now a push to bridge the gap, and get feedback from the public because they have ideas that could influence really good scientific discoveries and vice versa. 

So having proper communication and dissemination of knowledge, will also kind of prevent the polarization from occurring. 

You’ve got a long term solution you’re working toward, but what would you like to see right now?

CHRIS: About 20% of Canadians have a STEM background, give or take, so to see representation equal to that across governments, that's the long-term goal. And we're starting by trying to demystify running for office. People who are trained in STEM, they're in school for four to eight years, and that's time when they're mostly focused on their education and are completely disconnected from the political process when a lot of people in their 20s get really engaged in different political processes. So we're developing podcasts and newsletters to try to demystify this. We’re interviewing politicians who have a science background to get their stories, share how they did this and to try to amplify those voices.

DARREN: The other thing that a science and engineering background is really helpful for is that the training really teaches you how to think about uncertainty, which is really important to bring into the public sphere of debates. 

CHRIS: “Flip flopping” was a terrible term in politics, right? Like, you don't want to be a flip flopper, or you're gone. But with science, if new data comes in and disproves the old theory, that's the right answer. And so like, hopefully, by having more elected stem officials, you can convince more politicians to be like, “Hey, no, like, it's OK to have changed your opinion on a topic,” if new data suggests the old approach was inadequate.


If you’ve got a science background and you’re involved in politics, ElectSTEM is looking for speakers for their upcoming podcast, which is called Periodically Political. 

I love what they’re cooking up and if you fit the bill, it would be amazing to hear YOU on their podcast. If you know someone who fits the bill, forward this email.

Find ElectSTEM at their site or on Twitter or just hit reply to this email and I’d be happy to forward it to them. With thanks to Vanessa and Molly Sung because these are the kinds of initiatives I love stumbling into on Twitter.

Hoping you’re staying safe, dry and resting this weekend, and finding time for the big thoughts that help us recharge.

Thanks for reading,

Hannah

This interview was edited and condensed.

At The End Of The Day is edited by Ishani Nath 👑

FURTHER READING AND FOOTNOTES:

[1] How the leading coronavirus vaccines work, The Conversation

[2] Dolly Parton: Singer, Songwriter, Pandemic Saviour? New York Times

[3] Do we have enough scientists in Parliament? Molly and Vanessa Sung, iPolitics

[4] Ontario rejected its own public health agency’s advice when it launched its colour-coded plan for COVID-19 restrictions, Toronto Star

Artists and Authors Against Encampment Evictions, Artists and Authors Against Encampment Evictions, Toronto

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