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In my opinion

Don’t get mad – get involved!

Or, how a professor decides to enter politics.


Have political events ever made you so mad that you either had to stop reading the newspapers 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 toxic 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 and those prone to simmering outrage may remember Bill C-38 as a doorstop of an omnibus bill disguised as a budget that the Harper government 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 At 420 pages, it altered, repealed or rewrote 60 different acts of parliament.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. Members of parliament were not given anything like sufficient time to study the mass of legislative changes in Bill C-38, but the government majority voted it into legislation.

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. Rather, it was the contempt for parliament, and by extension for the voters themselves, embodied in a caucus voting for far-reaching measures of which they could know little or nothing. “This,” I said to my wife, “is not the Canada I moved to in 1988” (I emigrated from the U.K.).

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

You may wonder what it is like combining academia with 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?

Let’s examine the last question first. Katie Gibbs of Evidence for Democracy, a new NGO promoting evidence-based policies, notes that in 2013, fewer than 14 percent of members of parliament held master’s or PhD degrees, somewhat lower than in the general population (and no one in the Conservative caucus held a PhD).

Canadian academics decline to enter politics for various reasons, including the work commitment of academic careers, the fact that they move frequently early in their career and thus don’t become well-known in their community, the fear of losing credibility with colleagues, and the fear 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. Being a political candidate adds at least another half-time job on top of your regular work as a professor. As an ecologist, I am currently initiating a season of field research, training students, and trying 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 fundraising, which could be an article in itself.

And I’m hardly alone. Lynne Quarmby, the new Green Party candidate for Burnaby-North Seymour, continues to run her research lab and serve as chair of molecular biology and biochemistry at Simon Fraser University while actively campaigning. She calls it “challenging,” and credits support from both SFU and the Green Party with being able to get the campaign started while maintaining her work activities.

Climate scientist Andrew Weaver was elected Green MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head in British Columbia’s provincial election two years ago. With a busy political schedule, Dr. Weaver maintains a lab with three staff, a postdoc and two grad students, and he also co-wrote a dozen papers since being elected.

Losing credibility with colleagues if they run for office may not be the serious concern that many believe. After all, plenty of professors are overtly political without becoming politicians, criticizing the government and taking active positions on important policy issues. “I never worried about losing credibility,” says Dr. Weaver. “Why would that even be a question? I have been reasonably accomplished in academia.” Dr. Quarmby, and I as well, believe it is vital to maintain the core of academic integrity, where evidence must always trump partisanship

In Canada, where many worry that we are drifting towards U.S.-style politics, where evidence is ignored and discourse is dominated by fact-free partisanship, one might wonder why professors aren’t lining up in droves to run for election. In Spain, professors have been at the forefront of revitalizing politics in the face of mass youth unemployment and externally imposed austerity.

Of course, Canada has not experienced the same economic turmoil as have parts of Europe; mass unemployment is a more immediate stimulus to action than an attachment to evidence-based policy. But Dr. Weaver argues that there’s an urgent need for Canadian academics “at the peak of their careers” to get involved in the political process.

“Scientists have done their job. Now it’s time for politicians to do theirs,” says Dr. Weaver. “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, he adds, some young people in the audience reply that they have no one to vote for, or the candidates are all the same. If they don’t like the people on the ballot, he tells them, they should convince someone to run or run themselves. “There are only so many times you can give that talk,” he says, “before you look yourself in the mirror and say that you had better practise what you preach.”

Dr. Park is associate professor of biology and with the Centre for Forest Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Winnipeg. He is running as the Green Party candidate for Winnipeg South Centre in the next federal election.

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