It’s Time For Scientists to Lead

By Raywat Deonandan, PhD
Associate Professor & Assistant Director
Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences
University of Ottawa

A shortened version of this blog post was published in The Toronto Star on Mar 17, 2020, under the same title.

David Suzuki used to tell the story of going to a convention of dentists and being amused that everyone there looked at his teeth before looking into his eyes. It was a reminder to him that we all unconsciously see the world through the filters of our professions.

Worldwide, the ranks of politicians are overrepresented by two occupations: lawyers and businesspeople. It’s no wonder, then, that the issues that tend to obsess our governments are either legislative or commercial in nature. Certainly, leaders from these ranks have navigated our nation through the stormy waters of war and calamity and have given us robust judicial and economic systems.

But we live in new times with challenges unlike those seen at any other stage in history. Climate change is a looming existential threat whose nuances and descriptors impel some meteorological fluency. Awesome capabilities in computer science, data processing, and artificial intelligence are re-imagining warfare, employment, privacy, and the very essence of human exchange. And, of course, COVID-19 is presenting to policy makers conceptual challenges that demand a deeper fluency in population health sciences, virology, and human physiology.

In short, the time has come for more scientists to ascend to positions of political leadership.

A leader with fluency in health sciences, for example, might have prioritized the hardening of Canada’s pandemic preparation plans, rather than allowing us to be ranked 5th in in the world, in terms of preparedness (according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s 2019 Global Health Security Index.) This might have taken the form of improved financing of national and international disease surveillance programs, or in recognizing the need for responsive scalability in our health care system.

That same leader could have done much to quash vaccine hesitancy, helping us to avoid clusters of resurgent vaccine-preventable diseases like Measles. These clusters have been permitted to flourish in large part due to leaders not fully digesting the likely results of large-scale vaccine avoidance.

The need for science fluency among political leaders of the 21st century is paramount for one simple reason. To quote chemist Mark Lautens, now, more than ever, “facts matter more than rhetoric.” The public demand for straight answers in the wake of the arrival of COVID-19 is matched in consistency only by that same public’s disdain for vagueness and message management. Meanwhile, headway on combating climate change seems perpetually stalled by disingenuous misunderstanding and miscommunication of statistical data and the seemingly deliberate conflation of climate with weather. This is made possible because both legislators and many in the general public share an ignorance of the specifics of the science at the heart of the issue.

But just as we should shun scientific illiteracy in our leaders, we must also beware the tendency to lionize scientists as priestly purveyors of singular truth. In the words of Maggie Koerth, “science has never truly been separate from the political system that funds it and uses the tools it creates.” Even scientists are a politicized cadre with their own biases and blind spots. It is not so much that science fluency brings with it a magical fairness and objectivity. Rather, such fluency removes an increasingly preponderant barrier –that of comprehension– to rapid and decisive action on the time-sensitive issues of our technological age.

The existential issues of our century are not yet another modification to the Constitution or the renegotiation of another trade deal. Rather, the wealth, health, security and very existence of our societies will depend upon how we manage the varied products of our technological civilization. For us to have the best chance of weathering this time of accelerating and unprecedented change, scientists will have to lead, and leaders will have to embrace science.