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Where are all the MPs with PhDs?

The following opinion piece by E4D Executive Director Katie Gibbs appeared in iPolitics on November 17th 2013.
A person wearing a graduation cap.

Is it time for scientists to leave the lab and enter the political fray?

The following opinion piece by E4D Executive Director Katie Gibbs appeared in iPolitics on November 17th 2013.

Is it time for scientists to leave the lab and enter the political fray?

As expected, when Greg Rickford was appointed Minister of State (Science and Technology) during the last cabinet shuffle, one of the critiques was that he doesn’t have a science background. This is a valid concern — a case can certainly be made that it is beneficial to have a science minister who has at least some background in science or research (see the recent piece “Why don’t cabinet ministers know anything about science?”). However, I don’t think this is the underlying problem.

While chatting with colleagues about Rickford’s appointment, a common question was who would have been a better choice for the position? A good question, to which there’s no easy answer. The real problem is not that Stephen Harper appointed a science minister that doesn’t have a science background. It’s that there aren’t enough MPs with a science background to begin with. To my knowledge there isn’t a single Conservative MP with a PhD in Science.

According to the Public Policy Forum, 74% of MPs have some post secondary education and 13.9% have some graduate education (Masters or PhD). Yet only 4.2% have a background in science or engineering, and 3.2% have advanced degrees in medical fields. Only one sitting MP has a PhD in science (Ted Hsu, Kingston and the Islands), while another has a PhD in engineering (Marc Garneau, Westmount—Ville-Marie). These rates are far lower than among the general population, where 21% of university graduates have a background in science, math, computer science or engineering. If applied to the 74% of MPs that have post-secondary education, we’d expect about 16% of MPs to have a background in these subjects. Why are scientists so underrepresented?

It could either be that scientists don’t run for office, or that they’re less successful when they do. While there aren’t any data to answer this question, I suspect it’s the former. As a politically active scientist, I’ve had many conversations about this with my science colleagues, and their responses break down into four categories:

1. A science career is too time consuming to consider being a political candidate at the same time.

2. Scientists move around a lot, especially early in their careers, so it is harder for them to establish themselves in their communities.

3. Scientists are concerned about losing credibility within the scientific community if they get involved in partisan politics. Similarly, they worry they won’t be able to return to their scientific career if their political life is short-lived.

4. Scientists are concerned that, as a political candidate or elected MP, they would have to “toe the party line” and take un-scientific positions on issues. As scientists, they want to reserve the right to change their mind if new information comes along. This is (unfortunately) often frowned upon in the political world.

Though there’s little we can do to address the first two issues, they don’t provide a compelling excuse not to run for office. Many other people with busy careers still find the time.

In response to the third issue, the science community needs to be more welcoming – even encouraging – to scientists who run for political office. In most professions, political candidates would have the backing of their colleagues, but this is not always the case in science. If we want science to be better represented in Parliament, we need to champion colleagues that are willing to enter the political fray, and welcome them back when they return – whether from office or from an unsuccessful run.

The last issue is hardest to address, but likely the most important, as the current political landscape is a difficult place for people who value logic and reason over partisanship. There is no quick fix, but affording more independence from party whips to candidates and MPs would be a step in the right direction.

The best solution I see is for more scientists to take the plunge. Yes, the water is dirty and you may need to plug your nose now and again, but sometimes the best way to change the system is from within. It’s not a silver bullet, but having more scientists actively engaged in politics will go a long way to improving evidence-based decision making in Canada. If we want politicians who will critically examine and weigh all the evidence, then why not elect more people who are trained to do this as part of their vocation?

Katie Gibbs, PhD (Biology) is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy—a new organization that advocates for the use of evidence in government decision making and public policy development.


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