On professors who become politicians: Don't get mad, get involved!

A guest blog by Andrew Park, associate professor of biology at the University of Winnipeg and Green Party candidate in Winnipeg South Centre.

A shorter version of this article originally appeared in University Affairs, and can be viewed here.

A guest blog by Andrew Park, associate professor of biology at the University of Winnipeg and Green Party candidate in Winnipeg South Centre.

A shorter version of this article originally appeared in University Affairs, and can be viewed here.

Have political events ever made you so mad that you either had to stop reading the newspaper, or step up and do something? If you have, and if you are anything like me, your initial flush of anger diminished after a while, but left you marinating in a stew of discontent. You can’t sustain this mood if you want to remain healthy, and therefore you have to resolve it one way or the other. And so, to safeguard my mental health, to respond to my growing concern at the direction our country is going, and because I just can’t resist interfering in stuff, I decided to enter politics.

For me the precipitating event was the passage of Bill C-38. Political junkies may remember Bill C-38 as a doorstop of an omnibus bill disguised as a budget, introduced in 2011. At 420 pages, it altered, repealed or rewrote 60 different acts of parliament. In the process, it gutted three decades of progressive environmental legislation. MPs were not given anything like sufficient time to study the mass of legislative changes in Bill C-38, but the Tory majority voted it into legislation anyway.

Although I’m an ecologist, it wasn’t the fact that our environmental laws were thrown under the bus that put me over the edge – although it did make me mad. It was, rather, the sheer contempt for parliament, and by extension for the voters themselves, embodied in a caucus of MPs voting for far-reaching measures of which they could know little or nothing. “This,” I said to my wife one day, “is not the Canada I moved to in 1988”.

From that complaint, I was a short journey but still a long decision away from getting directly involved in politics. Eventually the decision was made, a nomination period declared, and I became the Green Party candidate for Winnipeg South Centre in this fall’s general election.

So…What is it like combining academia and politics? What are the effects of politics on my day job, and vice versa, and why, in Canada, are so few professors involved in politics?

In true political fashion, let’s examine the last question first. Katie Gibbs of Evidence for Democracy notes that in 2013 there were no Tory MPs with PhDs in Science, and across the Commons, only 13.9% of MPs had Masters or PhDs, somewhat lower than in the general population. Potential explanations for the reluctance of Canadian academics to enter politics include the enormous work commitment of academic careers, early career mobility preventing academics from becoming “faces” in their communities, potential loss of credibility with colleagues, and the possibility that once elected, they would have to toe the party line.

Little can be done about early career mobility, but plenty of candidates have been “parachuted” into electoral districts, and have been elected.

Maintaining work-life balance is a real challenge. If being a professor is equivalent to one and a half full time jobs, being a political candidate adds at least another half-time job on the top. As an ecologist, I am initiating a season of field research, training students, and attempting to pay attention to analyzing data and writing papers. I find myself listening to CBCs “The Current” as we head out to the field sites, and canvassing my students’ political views in the truck. At the end of a long day, I try to make time to answer party emails, contact volunteers, and participate in party policy forums. And then there’s fund raising, which would be an article in itself.

And I’m hardly alone. Lynne Quarmby, newly minted Green Party candidate for Burnaby-North Seymour, continues to run her research lab and serve as Chair of Molecular Biology & Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University while actively campaigning. “Getting the campaign off the ground on top of maintaining those activities has been challenging”, says Quarmby in a classic piece of understatement, “but I have good support both at SFU and from the Green Party”.

And if you think Lynn Quarmby works hard, consider climate scientist Andrew Weaver, who was elected Green MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head in BC’s provincial election. While maintaining a busy political schedule, Prof. Weaver continues to maintain a lab with three staff, a postdoc and two grad students. Weaver has also co-authored a dozen papers since being elected, which would make most productive academics look like slackers.

Loss of credibility with colleagues may not be the serious concern it is thought to be. After all, plenty of professors are overtly political without becoming politicians, criticizing the government, and taking active positions on important policy issues. Since 2011, professors have critiqued and opposed numerous government policies, including the fair Elections Act, the defanging of the Navigable Waterways Protection Act, over-reliance on Omnibus Bills, and Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorist Act.

Andrew Weaver is clear that worries about credibility never concerned him: “[I] never worried about losing credibility. Why would that even be a question? I have been reasonably accomplished in Academia.” For Lynne Quarmby and for me personally, it is vitally important to maintain that core of academic integrity, where evidence must always trump partisanship. Quarmby says, “one non-negotiable of my political life is that I will not compromise my intellectual integrity. My colleagues have expressed their respect and admiration for what I am doing. They too see the damage being wrought by the lack of evidence-based decision making.”

Quarmby continues, carefully demarcating the line between evidence and ideology:

"I learned early that to be successful in science, I needed to follow the data. Ideas are tools used to design experiments that will reveal something how the world works. Ideas never trump nature. I've been appalled to watch our political system devolve into a battle of partisan ideologies with little regard for evidence. I've stepped into the political arena to help restore evidence-based decision making."

Lynne Quarmby’s views echo those of most academics who have entered the political arena. They, and I, worry that Canada is drifting towards a US-style politics, where evidence and facts have been thrown under the bus and discourse is dominated by a sort of fact-free “partisanship on steroids”. Under these circumstances, the question is not “why are professors becoming politicans”, but why are they not lining up in droves to run for election? In Spain, for example, professors have been at the forefront of re-vitalizing politics in the face of mass youth unemployment and externally imposed austerity.1 German Chancellor Angela Merkel is well known for having a PhD in physical chemistry.

Of course, Canada has not experienced the same obvious turmoil that is present in parts of Europe. And mass unemployment is a more immediate stimulus to action than an attachment to evidence-based policy. But as Andrew Weaver makes clear, the need for Canadian academics to stand up and get involved in the political process is just as urgent.

“Scientists have done their job. Now it’s time for politicians to do theirs," he says. "I have given many talks on climate science to diverse audiences, and when asked what I believe the single most important thing a person can do I say "vote"….Invariably, when I heard back from the youth in my presentations they would say something like 'there is no-one to vote for' or "they are all the same'. I would go on about if you don’t like the people on the ballot, convince someone to run or run yourself. There are only so many times you can give that talk before you look yourself in the mirror and say that you had better practice what you preach.”

He finishes with a clear message.

“To be blunt, I think we need more people at the peak of their careers entering politics. I am not someone to sit back and complain about what is happening around me. I try and get engaged, to make a difference.”

1http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/31/podemos-revolution-radical-academics-changed-european-politics

Alana Westwood

Research Coordinator

Alana Westwood leads E4D's national research program, coordinating the Network of Experts, as well as designing and delivering training workshops. She completed her PhD in conservation biology at Dalhousie University in 2016, studying forest ecology and bird species at risk.