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Why I ran for office, and how to support more scientists as candidates

In this guest blog post, Leigh Paulseth recounts why she ran as a Green Party candidate during the 2021 federal election, and how we can better support scientists who choose to run for public office
Leigh Paulseth

I often get asked, “why did you run for office?” The simple answer is: I ran because I could.

Let me explain.

In the 2021 federal election, I ran as a Green Party candidate for Ajax (ON) — my home town. It was my first time running for office, and my first time being part of a partisan political campaign. It was also a snap election, and the first federal election to be run during a global pandemic in Canada.

Although I had only recently joined a political party as a member, I have been politically active for over a decade. As an environmentalist — something I owe to my background in conservation biology and work in ecological restoration — I have been involved in various community-based and national campaigns to fight for action on environmental and climate issues. Through my activism, I’ve had the pleasure to meet many elected officials over the years. I viewed running as a federal candidate as a way to push for change from the other side of the fence.

If I had simply wanted to be involved in partisan politics, I could have found ways to support the party of my choice. But standing as a candidate for my community was a much bigger opportunity.

In my role at the Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson), I train scientists to engage with the public, and design programs to empower under-represented voices in STEM. I encourage female scientists to take the spotlight and celebrate their leadership — running for office gave me that same opportunity. During the pandemic, many of the issues that I work on in my professional life, like the gender pay gap and barriers to education for equity-deserving communities, became part of global discussions around equity on a much larger scale.

Outside of work, I spend my time on environmental advocacy, and running essentially gave me a loudspeaker. I was also fortunate enough to have strong role models, having met with politicians of all stripes over the years. I still recall with anger the emotional abuse and threats that Member of Parliament (MP) Catherine McKenna received after MP Gerry Ritz first used the term, ‘Climate Barbie’, back in 2017.

Leigh and her dog Della in a forest.
Leigh with Della, her pandemic pup, at Greenwood Conservation Area, Ajax. Photo credit: Emily Agard.

And so I ran because I had the privilege to do so. As a young woman, without dependents and a strong support network, I had the resources to use my voice and experience. As a scientist in a stable and supportive position, I was able to use my privilege to address the issues I care about. I had the opportunity to be the change I wanted to see.My role models have taught me two things: that we need more science in politics, and we need more women in politics. Neither of these things are easy to accomplish, and sometimes people are still surprised to find these traits packaged in one person. When canvassing at the door, residents would be holding a pamphlet with my face on it, and yet I would still get the question: “Who is the candidate? Where is he?”

It’s clear that there is more work to do to both change perceptions of who a scientist is, and who a politician is. How can we support scientists who are entering politics, especially women, and those from underrepresented communities? Ahead of the 2022 provincial election in Ontario, here are my non-partisan suggestions on how to support candidates.

1. Show up

Recall what you wanted most at your thesis defence: a friendly face and an easy question! That’s what all candidates want at a townhall or debate. You don’t have to live in their riding. With virtual townhalls continuing this provincial election cycle, it’s easier than ever to attend! Ask a question that plays to their strengths, and allows them to talk about the issues they are passionate about.

2. Donate to the campaign

Election campaigns are expensive. Many candidates get seed money from their party (if they are running with a party), but the amount varies widely, and can be dependent on membership within the riding. Regardless, candidates are largely responsible for finding donors and financing their campaign. To ensure all of your donation supports the candidate (and not their party), contact the candidate directly or their Official Agent (the person in charge of campaign finances) to donate directly to the campaign. Either way, you get a tax receipt for your donation!

3. Endorse the candidate

I was very lucky to have several diverse endorsements —many from people outside of my riding. These endorsements don’t need to be particularly partisan; in fact, one of my endorsers specifically told me that they wouldn’t be voting Green, but that they were happy to endorse me personally as a candidate. This goes to show that STEM professionals can support each other in political spaces, outside of party politics.

Dr. Imogen Coe
Dr. Coe is the founding Dean of Science and a professor at the Toronto Metropolitan (fromerly Ryerson) University, Toronto.






4. Volunteer

Again, you don’t have to live in a candidate’s riding to volunteer on their campaign. Generally campaigns need boots on the ground — folks willing to knock on doors, or drop off flyers. My boss actually came to Ajax and took campaign photos for me! There are also remote volunteer opportunities, such as phone banking, policy research and social media support.

5. Yes, and…

My campaign was about bringing more science to politics, not misrepresenting the science. Scientists can be picky about labels because accuracy is important. However, during my campaign, I was hesitant to label myself as a “scientist” because I currently work in science communication and education.

It’s true that politicians can oversimplify things, however I encourage scientists to adopt the improv game “Yes, and” when suggesting corrections. In this game, you accept the status quo and add to it. For example: “Yes, Leigh is trained as a scientist, and now works in science communication.” When you see scientists oversimplifying in a political situation, take the high road and use the “Yes, and” approach to correct any mistakes you may see, while still supporting good science policy.

6. Reach Out

Putting yourself in the public eye and running for office takes a lot of courage and energy, no matter who you are. So many colleagues reached out to me after the campaign, but none of them reached out during the election.

Although I didn’t have much time for personal correspondence, I would still advise you to send a note to candidates during election campaigns. This will help reduce imposter syndrome and bolster their confidence. You may not get a response, but I can guarantee it will be appreciated.

In closing, if we agree that more science is needed in politics, and that our elected officials should be representative of our broader society, then it’s up to all of us to support these candidates. If we want to see real change, we need to support the women and scientists who run for office so they have the opportunity to represent us as elected officials.

Leigh Paulseth in a forest.

Leigh Paulseth is a passionate environmentalist, with six years of experience working with environmental non-profits, and five years in science education and community outreach. Leigh holds a Bachelor of Science, and a Master of Resource & Environmental Management. As the Science Outreach and Enrichment Coordinator at Toronto Metropolitan University, Leigh manages public outreach programs, like Let’s Talk Science and Soapbox Science. Outside of work, Leigh has been involved in campaigns to resist oil pipelines in Ontario and protect Rouge Park in Toronto. Most recently, she successfully helped to stop development of the Duffins Wetland by a provincial Minister’s Zoning Order, and ran as a Green Party Candidate in the 2021 federal election.

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