Does the new Minister of State for Science and Technology Greg*** Rickford really need research experience?

Gary Goodyear,  Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology since 2008, was shuffled away and Greg*** Rickford, fell into his place as of July 15, 2013 in the Harper government’s latest cabinet shuffle (largely viewed as a diversionary tactic in the wake of a Senate expense scandal).

Sadly, the Goodyear/Rickford change didn’t make many waves here in Canada.The mainstream media has barely mentioned it and the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC), where one would expect something, has no mention of it (as of 10:30 am PDT July 17, 2013) on their website homepage. As the CSPC is volunteer-run, I imagine this is an issue of not having enough time during the summer while being in the preparatory stages of the fall 2013 conference. Still, that particular omission does seem a bit odd.

There was, however, a mainstream media plea before the shuffle was announced. Jordan Himelfarb made his plea  in a July 12, 2013 opinion piece for the Toronto Star,

A wise next step: get rid of Gary Goodyear.

For fans of science, this will be an uncontroversial suggestion. Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, has presided over the most retrograde federal S&T policy in memory.

During his tenure, the government shuttered the office of the National Science Adviser, blocked asbestos from a UN hazardous chemicals list on which it clearly belongs, gutted the Fisheries Act, gutted the Navigable Waters Protection Act, set out to weaken the Species at Risk Act, killed the long-form census, eroded Environment Canada’s ability to monitor climate change, earned an international reputation for muzzling scientists and, at a great potential cost, defunded the world’s leading freshwater research centre [Experimental Lakes Ares]. (I stop there arbitrarily. The list really does go on and on.)

A change has been made but whether there will be any change is a bit of a mystery. I’ve found some coverage  and commentary about the change in the US and by Canadian science blogger, Eight Crayon Science. As the US coverage is more neutral (relatively) and general in tone, I’ll start there. Wayne Kondro in a July 15, 2013 article for Science Insider notes,

Former lawyer and nurse Greg Rickford has become Canada’s science minister as Prime Minister Stephen Harper shuffled his Cabinet on Monday. The move is an attempt to deflect attention from an expenses scandal that has rocked Harper’s Conservative government and left pundits calling for a reboot prior to the expected national elections in 2015. It has left science associations scrambling to learn a bit about the new junior minister.

…  The position reports to Industry Minister James Moore, who was promoted from the Canadian Heritage Ministry and whose new portfolio oversees all of Canada’s science agencies with the exception of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research …

David Bruggeman in his July 16, 2013 posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog put this news into an international context (Note: Links have been removed),

While the possibility of a new U.K. science minister is only rumor at the moment, the Canadian government has just reshuffled its Cabinet.  Minister for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear is out, and replacing him is Greg Rickford. Minister Rickford has previously served in ministerial positions responsible for development in northern Canada.  While he does have experience as a nurse, like his predecessor Minister Rickford does not have much research experience.

Mention of Rickford’s lack of research experience is made in Kondro’s article and by Canadian science blogger Eight Crayon Science in a July 16, 2013 posting which also details changes in other science portfolios,

We here in Canada had quite a major cabinet shuffle yesterday, precipitated in part due to the departure of a few major cabinet ministers. So, the five positions with the most sciency-ness are now held by:

  • Minister of State for Science and Technology: Greg Rickford (Kenora) replaces Gary Goodyear (Cambridge)
  • Minister of the Environment: Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut) replaces Peter Kent (Thornhill)
  • Minister of Fisheries and Oceans: Gail Shea (Egmont) replaces Keith Ashfield (Fredericton)
  • Minister of Natural Resources: Joe Oliver (Eglington-Lawrence) remains in the position
  • Minister of Health: Rona Ambrose (Edmonton-Spruce Grove) replaces Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut)

Let’s go one by one. I’m pleased that Goodyear is gone, because having a science minister who dances around the question of whether or not he believes in evolution is frankly embarrassing. Rickford has worked previously as a nurse (though his law degrees are more emphasized in the bios I’ve seen), which is a step in the right direction. But he’s the MP for Kenora, the riding of the Experimental Lakes Area, and he was previously a vocal proponent for closing the site. So, we’re not exactly off to a flying start.

A sort of secondary (or at least a more chronic issue than a Thing That Needs Attending To Immediately) is the continual lack of MPs with strong science backgrounds. *Lawyers and bankers and business folk of all stripes are a dime a dozen in Parliament, but doctors are rare, and scientists and engineers are even rarer. This isn’t to say that a *lawyer cannot be an excellent Minister of State for Science and Technology, but an MP with a more direct background in science — whether that’s industrial science, academic science, theoretical or applied science — will bring a more relevant perspective to the portfolio. Having worked as a scientist will likely give a Minister of Science a more tangible view of how policy set forth by their portfolio affects Canadian science, scientists, and citizens than a working as an attorney would, and I think that perspective is important.

I’m not entirely in agreement with this notion that a Science and Technology Minister needs direct experience of research as something will have to be sacrificed.  Which skill set do you want to sacrifice: research, administrative, political maneuvering, and/or social? It’s rare to get someone who’s equally good at all of these. Also, someone from outside the research community is less likely to have enemies within that community.

Personally, I’d like to see more science awareness in Parliament as per Preston Manning’s suggestion about the science community reaching out to politicians (Part 1 of an interview with Manning in a Sept. 10, 2009 posting and Part 2 of the Manning interview in a Sept. 11, 2009 posting). There are, for example, UK programmes that address this issue including one where young scientists shadow politicians (my Nov. 26, 2010 posting).

The appointment I find a bit more disturbing, at this point,  is James Moore’s to Industry Canada [ETA July 17, 2013 at 3:55 pm PDT: Science and Technology is a junior ministry included with the senior and important Industry ministry]. Moore once characterized Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer, and others as ‘extremist radicals’ for 0pposing his (Moore’s) maximalist approach to a then upcoming piece of  copyright legislation (my June 25, 2010 posting) at a public event and later lied about the comment. Unfortunately for Moore, there was video evidence. Given the emphasis on patents in the innovation discussion, Moore’s previous comments on maximizing copyright are not comforting if one feels that even current patent regimes are hindering innovation and by extension the pursuit of science.

During Moore’s tenure as Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages he expressed his displeasure with an exhibition about sex at  the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa (from my June 13, 2012 posting),

It’s time now to add sex to the mix. Canada’s Science and Technology Museum is currently hosting SEX: A Tell-all Exhibition, which has caused some consternation in our country’s capital (Ottawa), from the May 16, 2012 article by Althia Raj for the **Huffington Post (Canada),

Canada’s Science and Technology Museum has abruptly raised the age limit for a controversial sex exhibit after Heritage Minister James Moore’s office raised concerns and more than 50 individuals complained.

Moore’s office called museum president Denise Amyot to complain that Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition [sic] is completely inappropriate.

“The purpose of the Museum of Science and Technology is to foster scientific and technological literacy throughout Canada,” said Moore’s spokesperson James Maunder.

“It is clear this exhibit does not fit within that mandate. This content cannot be defended, and is insulting to taxpayers,” he said.

This show had already been run in Montréal (where it was developed by the Montréal Science Centre for children 12 years and older) and in Regina (Saskatachewan), without significant distress or insult.

Rickford is going be dealing with a boss who has some very definite ideas, is not afraid to intervene whether it’s appropriate or not, and lies under pressure.

Getting back to Goodyear, while there are many criticisms  Canadian science blogger and well known mathematician,  Nassif Ghoussoub, had good things to say about Goodyear’s ministership in a Nov. 16, 2011 posting and about Goodyear’s attitude to science in a May 17, 2012 posting on his Piece of Mind blog.

For a more extensive view and explanation of some of the concerns regarding Goodyear’s and the Harper government’s science activities, there’s this May 3, 2011 posting by David Ng (science literacy academic at the Michael Smith Laboratories of the University of British Columbia) on the Discover magazine website. H/T to Phil Plait at Slate.com for the Ng article.

* A minor typo was corrected, laywer to lawyer.

** An amusing type  was corrected, Huggington to Huffington.

*** An embarrassing mistake was corrected, Gary Rickford to Greg Rickford on Feb. 2, 2015.

ETA July 18, 2013: Earlier today, I found this July 15, 2013 article analyzing the situation with the news that the cabinet shuffle involved the ministers for Industry Canada and its junior portfolio Science and Technology written by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail.

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