Canadian Science Policy Advocate Interviews: Jonathan Turner, Historian of Science, University of Toronto

Jan 06 2014 Published by under Canada, interview, Politics

Welcome to the rebooted science interview series here at Confessions of a Science Librarian! The previous incarnation mostly concentrated on people in the broadly defined scholarly communications community, like Mark Patterson of eLife, Peter Binfield and Jason Hoyt of PeerJ or author Michael Nielsen.

The series has been extremely irregular for the last few years so I thought my more recent involvement with Canadian science policy advocacy presented an interesting opportunity to start over. In particular, my participation in the recent iPolitics science policy series presented itself as a amazing chance to tap into a wonderful pool of science policy advocates and see what they think about the current situation in Canada.

So what I've done is invite each of the authors from that series to respond to the same set of email interview questions with the idea that I would publish their exact responses here.

Over the next month or two I will be publishing the interviews from those that have agreed to participate. Once a few of those are up, I plan to widen the field and invite a broader range of Canadian science policy advocates to join the fray.

Suggestions of interview participants are more than welcome. Please feel free to email suggestions to jdupuis at yorku dot ca.

University of Toronto historian of science Jonathan Turner is today's subject.

Previous subjects include: University of Toronto Ph.D. candidate Dak de Kerckhove.



Q1. Could you tell us a little bit about your scientific/technical/journalistic/political background and how you ended up involved in science advocacy? How do you define advocacy and what’s been the focus of your advocacy activities?

I'm trained as a historian of science, specifically science in government including science advocacy. Even for that unorthodox field my background is unusual. My first degree was in history and philosophy at York University - I was particularly interested in the interaction between scientists and politicians on nuclear and nuclear defence issues in the United States. Immediately after that I started a second undergraduate degree in physics, which I completed in 3 years thanks to a couple of transfer credits and Waterloo's 3-term setup. After that I started graduate studies at the University of Toronto in the history and philosophy of science and technology, and I continued to be fascinated by defence sciences – I defended a thesis on the history of the Defence Research Board in 2012.

I think there are probably three messages I have to share in the science advocacy community. The first two are gleaned from years of studying science advocacy and the current situation, the final message is a cautionary prediction.

First, in spite of what C.P. Snow says about the differences between the two cultures (which is, of course, a problematic construct), it’s important to remember the most important similarity – scientists are people and people have foibles. Sometimes people make sound decisions, sometimes we don't; sometimes our decisions have a positive impact, sometimes they don't. More scientific, technical, and academic voices in the democratic process would be a good thing, but technocracy (the extreme position) is as undesirable as any other form of oligarchy.

Second, what we're seeing from the current version of populist conservatism is an emphasis on the importance of people's experiences and instincts, which is generally accompanied by a denigration of expertise. This means that it's not just scientists whose knowledge is coming into question, but every 'elite' who has spent years refining their knowledge of a specific topic. For experts, this means it's not enough to rely on credentials, we have to be persuasive (or, if you look at C.P. Snow’s other study of science in government, well connected like Frederick Lindemann – later Lord Cherwell).

Third, and finally, traditional academic silos are a constant barrier to the kinds of results the science advocacy community would like to achieve. Historians, political scientists, geographers, anthropologists, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, economists, etc. all have interesting expertise to share about the nuances of decision-making and policy-formation. But in a world where funding for studies is so competitive, we've trained ourselves to talk about our own project as if it is the single most important study, which leads many of us to believe that our expertise and experience are uniquely and exclusively important. An optimist might believe that we're so focused on our own work that we forget that there are other interesting things being studied, a cynic would argue that we're driven by selfish goals of survival and self-promotion; either way, those personal and academic silos prevent us from the kind of collegiality that could lead to truly fascinating interdisciplinary understandings of the world and people around us. Without a concentrated collegiality of all experts, funds and influence will continue to go to those who are most persuasive and best connected.

Q2. The Conservative Government’s science policies since 2006 have been pretty controversial and hotly contested. What do you think has been the most damaging thing that they’ve done?

As a citizen, the things that trouble me most are the actions of this government (and several others) that reduce and/or delay accountability and transparency. A functioning democracy has to have access to government documents in a timely and reasonable fashion, and no one hired by a political party should be allowed to interfere in that process. I don't expect to agree with every decision of every government, but I would like elected representatives to justify and explain their decisions, and allow all of us to look at the evidence they used to come to a decision.

As a historian, the inconsistent response to ATIP requests is difficult professionally. The revamped 'census' is going to be problematic for my academic descendants, and is no doubt frustrating for a large number of current social scientists. Decisions regarding cultural institutions (museums, archives, etc.) are oddly fascinating insofar as I look forward to reading histories of the decision-making processes and the ways that administrators, curators, and archivists implement policies, but those decisions are also a challenge when they prevent access to information that would provide a more accurate and nuanced interpretation of the past.

Q3. The conservative response to a lot of the activism that’s happened over the last few years has basically been to affirm that the Harper government has increased overall funding for science and that what some have called muzzling is really just management asserting its right to control what their employees communicate to the media. How do you respond to this?

It's hard to get overly excited about this. I mean the article defending the government's position is terrible and confused, and the muzzling of scientists is frustrating for (nearly) everyone involved. However, the government came in with a mandate, and it felt it had to respond to the economic situation; message control is a time-honoured political survival tradition. Is this government doing more message control? Probably. Are we on a slippery slope to an anti-knowledge state and a propaganda machine of Big Brother proportions? Probably not. Histrionics have very limited persuasive power.

Q4. When the next government comes in, they will effectively have a kind of science blank slate to work with. What do you think are some policies the next government should focus on to rebuild their science and technology activities and infrastructure?

I don't think 'science blank slate' is anymore true with this government than any previous one. This government has a science and technology policy that favours, or that it intends to favour, business, entrepreneurship, and resource exploitation. The next government will be free to chart its own course, provided that it starts where this one leaves off – there is no sense, nor would it even be possible, to start from scratch.

That said, I'd love to see a government take an evidence-based, long-term approach to all policy creation, but elections cycles make this difficult. Further, I'd like that evidence to be broadly, democratically, and collegially construed to include everything from anecdotes to the z-test.

Q5. In the meantime, there’s lots of work to be done. But many in the science community shy away from overt political activity as it relates to their work. How would you convince skeptical but interested scientists to get involved with advocacy? And what do you think would be the most effective way for them to channel their energies?

Advocacy, in the sense you're talking about, means fighting to establish yourself as a privileged voice in the democratic process. So, the normal avenues of establishing a privileged voice in the democratic process apply: talk to your elected representatives, talk to your neighbours, write, contribute to election campaigns, join a political party, run for election, vote, have lots of money and influential friends, etc.

Having a more diverse group of privileged voices than we currently have would be fantastic. Having an altruistic and diverse group of privileged voices would be even better.

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