From all the election hoopla in the United States, Canadians would be forgiven for thinking that our American friends were about to head to the polls tomorrow, not in November. But while the American process might seem tad drawn out to some, it does give voters a chance to get to know their candidates — something that Canadians would do well to follow, as we too may be facing an election in 2008.
What does politics have to do with science? Plenty, actually. Science and the application of it through technology are two of the most important forces shaping our world today. But contrary to what many people in our electronic age may believe, science and technology aren't independent forces that operate on their own. Instead, they are very much subject to the values and beliefs of a society. And the primary way in which those values and beliefs are expressed is through the choices made by its citizens — particularly who they choose to lead them.
Governments influence science in many ways. At a basic level, governments provide funding to scientific institutions and thus get to decide what kind of research gets funded and what kind does not. If a government has a particular ideology and does not support specific research, you can bet that its funding will be cut, regardless of the research's scientific potential.
At the other end, where established science might be able to shed light on the most prudent public policies to pursue, again the government has a direct hand, by choosing to accept or ignore the advice of experts in the field. Once again, prevailing government ideologies can and do trump science.
One of the most obvious examples of this has been in the United States under President Bush. Throughout Mr. Bush's presidency, his administration not only ignored the advice of scientists, but actively sought to downplay the voices of scientists who disagreed with its point of view — even to the extent of censoring key documents and removing scientists who disagreed.
Reporter Chris Mooney documents many examples of such political interference in his book The Republican War on Science. And according to the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists: "In recent years, scientists who work for and advise the federal government have seen their work manipulated, suppressed and distorted, while agencies have systematically limited public and policy maker access to critical scientific information." The organization has a petition, signed by 12,000 scientists, calling on the government to restore scientific integrity in the United States.
Naturally, this has many scientists in the U.S. watching the American race closely. A recent edition of the journal Science even offered profiles on the various candidates from both parties and where they appear to stand on certain science-related issues. From science education in schools to climate change and stem cell research, these issues are very important and will hopefully come to the forefront during the campaign.
With Canadians possibly heading to the polls for a federal election this year or next, we should be asking similar questions of our own candidates. Although Canada has largely been spared some of the attacks on science that have been cropping up in the United States, the ability to ignore prevailing scientific opinions and craft poorly researched science policy is by no means limited to American politicians.
Voter apathy is a serious problem in Canada, where voter turnout is shrinking. That's not good for science and it's not good for democracy. If you care about the future of science and the future of our country, make sure you too get to know your candidates. Ultimately the science we pursue is based on our values, so this is your chance to mould the shape of things to come.