Why politics matter to me

Where I do science these days…

I’m back! I finally decided to break the blogging hiatus for a number a reasons, the most important being that there are so many interesting things going on in science and Canadian politics nowadays that the urge to blog is tough to fight back… Let me begin with something that explains why I can’t confine myself to blogging only about science.

In the last couple of years, my interest for politics have been growing steadily. Strangely, the rise of my interest coincides with the my involvement in science. For some reason, getting really serious about doing science motivated me to follow and even maybe participate in politics. I think it all started with one question, one question I started contemplating early in my studies in physics. How do scientists get money?

The short answer is that most science is done with public money. By science, I mean the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. I am not talking about engineering and technological development here.  These can be done with a clear goal in mind, a roadmap of the challenges to overcome, and obvious commercial applications once accomplished. Science doesn’t work that way. Science is pure exploration of the unknown, the most mature expression of human curiosity. In a sense, science is a much higher risk investment than engineering and technological development. You don’t know how it’s going to pay off, and you are not guaranteed to be able to capitalize on the outcome. You can’t put a patent on a scientific discovery the way you can put a patent on a new engine design, so you can’t personally reap all the benefits of a scientific advance.

But science still costs money and because it is such a high risk affair, the private sector will always hesitate to fund it. The only way that science still gets done is because there is sufficient interest among the population for what scientists do. Even you are not a scientist, just by being a taxpayer and voter you are still responsible whether or not science gets done.

So the whole problem of getting money for science comes down to how science is perceived by the public and consequentially how it is perceived by politicians. This is where it gets complicated. Often, the findings of science contradict political and religious views. Often, science is not well done and findings which turn out to be false confuse people and damage their trust. Often, science leads to applications which are horrible and damaging to humankind. And very often, people do not know enough science to correctly judge its relevance to their own lives.

All four of these impediments to the proper funding of science are intimately connected to politics. Politicians themselves can be climate change denialists and/or creationists. The quality of the science done in Universities and public laboratories is strongly influenced by how the money is distributed among research groups. Scientists do not turn physics discoveries into weapons. It takes military preoccupation and opportunism for this to happen. What experiments are ethically responsible and acceptable is influenced by public policy. The scientific literacy of the general population is the responsibility of the education system and the media. Politics determine if science is well-done as well as they determine if it’s done at all.

In the end, science is a tool. It is the most powerful tool we have to learn anything. With it, you can find out what goes on in the core of stars, so that we can eventually do the same here to meet our energy demands. You can find out what the Universe really is made of. You can find out where we come from, and where we are going. You can find out how our brains work, and precisely how we are most vulnerable to fool ourselves. You can find out whether some public policies or economic theories work or not, instead of going by ideology.

Not only does politics have a big impact on science, science can also have a big impact on politics. Unfortunately, this feedback is mostly hindered on the return by political and religious ideologies. All sorts of convictions get in the way, from trickle-down economics to the belief that exposure to electromagnetic waves from wifi and cellphones damages health. There is yet to be a political party in Canada or in the United States that is free from these convictions. I am looking forward to the day when such a party will actually exist.

It doesn’t stop me from continually scanning the political scene for the most ideology-free and science-friendly politicians out there. I hope for their success. I am also keeping an eye on successful politicians who are riddled with ideology. I consider them a menace to society, because refusing to acknowledge evidence-based conclusions because these conclusions undermine their beliefs can only lead us towards a self-destructive path.

Not only do I look for politicians who are willing to invest in the scientific quest to understand our Universe and ourselves better, I also look for politicians who will understand the superiority of the scientific method as a guide in a complex reality. I am looking for politicians who will be able to give up convictions in the face of evidence. I am looking for politicians who understand how complex our societies are, and how solutions to the challenges we face are never simple. I am looking for politicians who behave like good scientists.

I strongly suspect that a world that is more scientifically literate is better guarded against bad policy, destructive technologies and natural disasters. Plus, technological progress can only be faster and better directed to the benefit of all. Never forget that all technology begins with scientific discovery and that we decide what technology we need, desire, and reject.

I don’t think that scientists can afford to overlook politics and neglect the public’s interest in science. That would be self-defeating and bad for the world. It might be an uphill battle, but it is not a battle in which no progress is ever made. NASA just scored an outstanding victory with the Curiosity mission. Earlier, CERN fostered interest like never before in the strange world of particle physics. This is the kind of things that gets the public excited about the world we live in. Such optimism is priceless and there will never be too much of it.

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One Response to Why politics matter to me

  1. Greg Millar says:

    Glad you’re back Michel. Nice little post.

    While scientific research is highly dependent on public funding, I must point out so is much of technology. Many of the most important technological developments (the computer, internet, jets engines, etc.) of the last century have been made in government funded labs, often labelled with the word ‘defense’. While market mechanisms can produce great results in some areas of technology, many of the most important developments along with the appropriate infrastructure investments that sustain further private innovation, have been the result of a de facto industrial policy often labelled as national defense policy. Government funding provides a strategic long-term vision that is necessary to develop the productive capacity of a nation. I believe in our post-Cold War world a non-defense industrial policy may be more appropriate to address the needs of economy and nation more directly.

    While the market can produce technological developments, leaving the strategic long-term health of the national economy solely to its forces is folly. Most especially when considered in the light of the actual history of technology in the 20th century, rather than the mythical fable that the free market fundamentalists often espouse. I hope the 2008 financial catastrophe has convinced concerned citizens that the market may not always be right.

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