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Margin Notes

The Killam symposium – wish you were there

Editor Peggy Berkowitz describes attending the 2nd Annual Killam Prize Symposium.


This week, we have a guest post written by my colleague and University Affairs editor, Peggy Berkowitz.

I was one of the fortunate individuals invited to attend the 2nd Annual Killam Prize Symposium held Monday night at Rideau Hall, which is referred to by its current occupant, Governor General David Johnston, as “the home of the people of Canada.” The symposium featured a panel of the five Canada Council Killam Prize winners for 2013, moderated by Paul Kennedy, host of the CBC Radio program Ideas, and introduced and concluded by the Governor General. Among the guests were senior members of the federal research granting councils and the Canada Council for the Arts, members of parliament, representatives of university-related associations (like myself), Killam trustees and members of the university community.

To the accompaniment of classical musicians, we were ushered into our seats in a sumptuous high-ceilinged hall with turquoise walls, gold drapes, columns and carpets, and, at its centre, an enormous glass chandelier. It was quite the setting for an intellectual soirée and, as Mr. Kennedy confided, the only time he wishes he were a host on television rather than radio.

The currently bearded and white-haired Mr. Kennedy – whom most of us know by his sonorous voice but may have never seen –interviewed the five Killam laureates one by one, questioning them about their research and how it relates to the world’s problems, in a very accessible way. The entire discussion will air on CBC Radio’s Ideas on Friday, Nov. 29, at 9:05 p.m. EST (and after that will remain on the program’s website).

The Killam Prizes, worth $100,000 each, are among the most prestigious in Canada for academic career achievement. The winning scholars (announced last April) were John McGarry of Queen’s University in the field of conflict resolution; Lorne Babiuk of the University of Alberta, a leader in vaccine research; Richard Peltier, a physicist at the University of Toronto, in the field of climate change; Paul Thagard of the University of Waterloo, a philosopher and cognitive scientist; and Witold Pedrycz of the University of Alberta, a researcher in computer intelligence.

The Killam Symposium is now replacing the Killam Lecture which until last year was delivered annually by a leading scholar –not one of the prize winners — during the annual meetings of the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies. In addition, the laureates each deliver a public lecture at one of the five Killam-designated universities (Dalhousie, Calgary, Alberta, UBC and McGill) during the year.

George Cooper, Killam trustee (and acting president of the University of King’s College, Halifax), said the idea behind the change was to put the spotlight on the laureates themselves.

I don’t want to report on the entire symposium – for one thing, I was there as a guest, not a journalist– but I wanted to share some of the comments Dr. Peltier made about how the media’s coverage of climate change is part of the challenge facing scientists.

Dr. Peltier is a pioneer in using models to project what may happen to our climate on earth. He is scientific director of SciNet, director of the Centre for Global Change Science, principal investigator of the Polar Climate Stability Network, winner of the Herzberg Gold Medal and one of the most highly cited earth scientists in the world. Yet, he now spends some of his time speaking directly to Canadians “in church basements” so he can speak to them without “the filter” of journalism.

“I discovered an enormous interest among non-scientists to understand the scientific basis of climate change,” he said in answer to Mr. Kennedy’s question about why he does this. “The range of views people hear in the media is so large as to confuse people on what to expect” in terms of changing climate.

As a journalist, I can say that we are trained, and feel a responsibility, to tell more than one side of a story. But as Dr. Peltier pointed out, when the consensus is overwhelmingly in one court, then telling different sides can mean that journalism “is not transmitting the facts properly at all.” And currently, “the consensus of those of us who work in the field is 95 percent.”

As a result, he is “very happy to speak in church basements.” He presents the scientific argument and why he believes it to be true. He now feels that unless scientists speak directly to people, the country as a whole “will not grasp the seriousness of the problem.”

So what is the scientific consensus? In a nutshell, he reminded us that the scientific consensus at the 2009 United Nations “Copenhagen Summit” was that the planet’s temperature couldn’t afford to increase by more than two degrees Celsius. He said industry groups like the International Energy Association have confirmed that if we’re to stay below this level, we need to leave two-thirds of carbon resources in the ground. The only way to do that is to “put a price on carbon.” At this point, the carbon tax would have to be at least $200 a tonne.

“It’s a huge challenge to scientists and engineers in this country and worldwide. We won’t do it until all the people in church basements in this country believe the science. This is why I have as many conversations like this one as I can.”

The entire symposium is well worth listening to – Friday evening, Nov. 29 on Ideas.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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