Sunday, January 27, 2008

Harper won't kiss the talking frog

In the Spring of 2004 (April Fools' Day!), former PM Paul Martin created the 'Office of the National Science Advisor' (ONSA). In the Spring of 2007 (again, April Fools'!), our "New" PM will officially shutter the ONSA (CBC). The first & last occupant of the position was esteemed chemist and former head of the National Research Council, Dr. Arthur Carty. Carty's original mandate, circa 2004 (in his own words):
The principal element of the NSA's mandate will be to provide sound, unbiased, non-partisan advice on (science and technology) to the Prime Minister in the context of Canada's goal to be one of the most innovative countries in the world. In this regard I will certainly have to play a role in building a truly national advisory capacity that provides the PM with authoritative, well considered options for decision making.
Why was this position so important? Here's Bob McDonald (Quirks & Quarks):
The National Science Adviser is a voice of reason to the government over actions it should take on issues such as climate change, genetically modified foods, managing fisheries, sustaining the environment - any time the politicians need to be educated on the basic science behind those often controversial issues. Of course, decisions are seldom made for purely scientific reasons; all too often, the interests of industry, special interest groups or a misinformed public will cloud the scientific truth. The Adviser’s job is to provide clarity and perspective.
Whatever his other failings, I would credit the former PM Martin for both creating the position in the first place, and for putting ONSA in the Privy Council Office. You see, Dr. Carty's office was created with the intention of giving ONSA direct access to the Prime Minister:
Carty was no dummy. Even in his first months as NSA he knew he'd have to tread carefully. What on earth am I talking about? Well, Carty was particularly fond of a certain Joke. You will see this Joke again and again, if you take the time to visit his archive of speeches and presentations (hey! Guess what Kitty did on Saturday!). Here's the Joke, as he related it to the Canada Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Forum, Edmonton, Alberta, June 17, 2004:
During a break in a meeting a politician and a journalist took a walk in a park, when a frog suddenly jumped out in front of them and started to speak: "I am a scientist who has been put under a spell. If you break the spell by lifting me up and kissing me I will serve you forever!"
The journalist said to the politician: "Wouldn't that be something for you? Just imagine, you would always have an expert on hand to give you scientific advice!" But the politician said: "No, better not. We all know what scientists are like, they talk too much, know everything better than you and always want to be the centre of attention. But it would be ideal for you! Editorial offices don't often have science writers, or if they do, they are not always very well informed. He would be really valuable for you. So, go on, pick up the frog and kiss him!" The journalist picked up the frog and looked at it briefly before putting it in his pocket. The politician was amazed and asked "Why did you put the frog in your pocket instead of kissing him?" To which the journalist replied "Because a talking frog is a hundred times more interesting for the media than the best scientist".
*groan* Quite the knee-slapper, eh? But it brings home several points for me, both as a citizen and a (not-very-accomplished) scientist. First of all, it is clear from his repeated use of this joke that Carty knew his job would be difficult, regardless of PM. I can tell you, from my own set of trivial experiences that, with few exceptions, non-scientists generally don't enjoy listening to scientists talk about, And who can blame them, eh?

Remember: "...they talk too much..."

Ok, sometimes we get a little excited. Perhaps we've spent months or even years working on that one thing and can't wait to share it with you over the dinner table. Not because we're bragging, mind, but because it's all we can think about lately. But, we get carried away, and before we know it, our dinner companions are face-down and blowing bubbles in their soup. Stop! Stop! For the love of Gawd, somebody switch her offffffff! And that's just our friends. Family's not always so subtle.

Remember: "they...know everything better than you."

Ah Family. You see, much as they love you and can't wait to tell their friends that their daughter/son/talking-robot is a scientist, they sure as fuck don't want to hear about your daily science-type doin's. Sometimes parents manage to curtail your excitement without hurting your feelings, e.g. "Oh, that's nice, dear. Say, how are you fixed for panty-hose?" But sometimes it's not so nice. Sometimes the reaction is one of angry, Stephen-Harper-grade insecurity: "You think you're better than me, eh?"

While I can only speak for myself, I can honestly say that I've never thought I was "better" than anybody. At anything. What I can tell you for sure is that I've learned to never talk about my area of science anymore unless someone asks about about it first. That said, while I've tried to limit my discussion to small 'blurbs,' Mr. Kitty shows no such restraint about his own area of science. You see, although he's an otherwise modest and considerate human bean, Mr. Kitty loves his work, and he will not stop talking until the last man's drowned in his soup. And while this proves mildly embarrassing at times, I secretly love him to bits for it.

Shit. Where was I going with this? Right. Canada's "New" Government. Yes: to them, scientists are like annoying gnats, forever buzzing in your ears. And when Stephen Harper became PM, he made damn sure to fumigate his office. Remember that organizational diagram from 2004? With the direct line between the (O)NSA and the PMO? Here's what happened to that when PMS came along:
Soon after taking power, the Harper government moved the National Science Adviser position from the Privy Council Office down to Industry Canada, where Dr. Carty reports to the Minister there instead of directly to the PM.
This means that Dr. Carty's ONSA has been effectively neutered since the council was moved from the PCO. Seriously folks, what's the point in providing "independent" advice to the Prime Minister if that advice is first filtered through a Konservative hack like Jim Flaherty, our current Min. Industry? I reckon that lots of Carty's advice was you say? Lost in translation. Sadly, removing the ONSA entirely just makes it official.

I don't know how the other parties will respond to this. Bear with me for a sec and take the case of the recent Chalk River/Linda Keen fiasco: while the bigger story is, quite rightly, about silencing whistleblowers, manufactured crises and the secret selling-off of our commonwealth, I also think it was illustrative of a more general unwillingness on the part of politicians of ALL stripes to educate themselves about scientific matters. I know, it's unfair to expect them to understand nuclear physics or nuclear medicine, but some of the comments (again, from ALL parties, mind) were downright cringe-worthy. Forgive me for saying this, but somebody needs to crack a fucking book. Unrealistic? Ok, get somebody who does know a thing or two to advise you. Like, a scientific advisor or...oh. Right.

So, even when a Member of Parliament has his/her heart in the right place (e.g. Save our planet! Stop poisoning our kids!), they still need good, independent scientific advice to fully elucidate the problem and to devise plans to address that problem. Who knows? Might even be worth putting up with a few annoying gnats. A final thought: It's worth remembering that, despite his enthusiasm for the appointment in 2004, Dr. Carty was clearly aware of the difficulties inherent in his job. It's not uncommon for independent scientific advice to be in tension with either corporate or political interests. That said, here's one thing the good chemist knew for sure: better to be the gnat-in-the-ear than the talking-frog that nobody listens to anymore. And with that, I'll leave you with Bob McDonald:
...those who feel threatened by a scientific finding, such as polluting industries, will lobby the government with their own experts who try to dismiss or cast doubt on the original finding. Notice I said dismiss or cast doubt. Industry-hired guns seldom arrive on the scene with their own evidence from experiments they performed and published that counter the mainstream idea. Usually, they’ll say, “I don’t believe it,” which is just an opinion, or they’ll look for small uncertainties in the data and focus on that to cast doubt on the results.
All science involves uncertainties - that’s the way the system works. But it takes a scientific eye to determine whether those uncertainties are significant or not. Without that perspective, a politician hears conflicting views or biased information that clouds the issue and confuses the public.
h/t Runesmith and LuLu


Anonymous skdadl said...

Brilliant post, Kitty. I'm sorry I missed this last weekend -- it is a wonderful piece of writing.

And now I'm off to chew nails about Harper. Gah -- it's endless.

2/01/2008 10:27 AM  
Blogger Godammitkitty said...

Thanks, skdadl! I wrote that in a big hurry and neglected to post a link at BnR. I think I was cooking dinner at the time :)

2/01/2008 2:46 PM  

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