Cullen to science students: join the political debate

/ Photo: Greg Denton, courtesy office of Nathan Cullen.
Nathan Cullen, MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley and the NDP’s deputy environment critic/ Photo: Greg Denton, courtesy office of Nathan Cullen.

By William Raillant-Clark.

As the Arctic melts and the petrodollars roll in to Alberta, scientists, politicians and big business are increasingly finding themselves in a policy face-off – and the researchers usually lose, according to Nathan Cullen, the NDP’s deputy environment critic. “These guys suck at this – they’ve come into politics from academia, and they’re dealing with some of the most powerful business people in the world,” he told a group of undergraduate Physics students on March 25.

Astrophysicist Matt Dobbs invited the MP for the federal riding of Skeena-Bulkley Valley to speak to his students because he believes it’s essential that the university community engage with experts from beyond the realms of academia. While climate change is obviously a global issue, Canada’s geography, economy, and current policy means that a taste of scientific life beyond the Roddick Gates will be especially useful to these McGillians. Cullen wants to encourage scientists to contribute to the political debate. However, he knows too well the cultural hurdles to overcome. He spoke at length about the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change and his opinion of the machinations that he observed at the debates. He was, as expected, sharply critical of Canada’s policy and the techniques used by the delegation to justify it. “Spin only works if people want to believe it,” Cullen said, as he outlined how the compelling scientific proof for immediate action had been twisted into an excuse for social paralysis. Cullen elicited a number of probing questions from students when he delved into the epistemological differences between scientists and politicians. “Don’t politicians have any scientific training?” asked one student, underlining the growing urgency for scientists to make their voices heard.

The reality, said Cullen, is that there is a visceral disconnect between the way scientists speak and the way politicians listen. Cullen gave the scientific method of establishing the truth as an example of this – scientists challenge each other to test hypotheses; politicians challenge each other to test credibility. When asked how scientists can reach out to politicians, Cullen suggested the time-honoured tradition of writing to their MP. “Five letters provoke a reaction from my office, and we estimate it takes about 750 in the prime minister’s,” he said. McGill researchers clearly have an open conduit to make important contributions to Canadian policy.

On the other hand, Cullen opined on the lack of scientific discussion in the energy field at the federal level. “Canada is the only developed country without a national energy policy,” he said.

He also spoke at length about the differences between U.S. and Canadian government investment in research in this field. “Stephen Harper wants Canada to be an energy superpower, but does this mean we have to be a carbon superpower?” he asked.

Cullen made a final plea to students to become more involved in political discourse. “Activism means acting for change, and I like change,” he said. Scientists need to find a way to move the energy debate from the “right/left” discourse with which it is currently associated to the “right/wrong” paradigm in which he said it properly belongs.