26 November 2013

Parliament needs a science watchdog

Science has never been more important to the human race than it is today. We are faced with the two greatest threats in our history: catastrophic climate change combined with exhaustion of the Earth's resources. We must rely on science to lead us out of the crises we have created for ourselves, to both understand and to deal with the threats. And this means our leaders must be scientifically literate. Unfortunately, they are not.

 Our Minister of State for Science and Technology, Greg Rickford, has no background in science, which almost makes one wonder if this wasn't why he was appointed. In any case, he isn't alone in ignorance of his portfolio. Out of 308 MPs, except for health care workers only 13 have a science or engineering background. Out of the 74 per cent who have some post-secondary education, only 4.2 per cent have a background in science or engineering and 3.2 per cent have advanced degrees in medical fields. This is well below the general population where 21 per cent of university graduates have a background in science, math, computer science or engineering. Only one MP has a PhD in science and only one a PhD in engineering.

There are a variety of reasons why scientists don't run for public office, not the least of which is that politics is an uncomfortable place for people who value reason over partisanship, but the point is they aren't there and therefore neither is science.

In order to deal with this dangerous deficiency, NDP science critic Kennedy Stewart will introduce a private member's bill this week proposing the creation of a parliamentary science officer. The officer would assess the state of scientific evidence relevant to any proposal or bill before Parliament; answer requests from committees and individual members for unbiased scientific information; conduct independent analysis of federal science and technology policy; raise awareness of scientific issues across government and among Canadians; and encourage coordination between departments and agencies conducting scientific research. According to Stewart, the officer would be "a champion for science." And lord knows, Parliament needs one. Both the U.K. and U.S. governments have a science officer who provides scientific information and advice publicly to all members of their respective legislatures.

Paul Martin's government established a national science adviser, but Stephen Harper abolished it, replacing it with the Science, Technology and Innovation Council. The Council, however, laden as it is with industry executives, is committed primarily to monitoring how well science is being applied to the economy, focusing on "commercialization, entrepreneurship and management." It is of little use in maintaining a high level of science awareness generally or of providing advice on environmental degradation and resource depletion specifically. It will do little to reduce the science illiteracy rampant in Parliament.

At this moment in our history, a Parliamentary science officer is of even greater importance than a Parliamentary budget officer. We can only hope enough MPs of all parties will vote to scientifically enlighten their chamber and support Stewart's bill.

1 comment:

  1. Bill, only those bereft of faith need science. There are very lucky people, Bill, who know that you don't need facts to know what's true. Faith, belief is all you need. p.s. Bible class tonight at 9 sharp!