When was the last time you heard a politician take a position on a scientific issue?
Science is all around us. It is at the heart of the issues that will have the most serious repercussions in the near future: climate change, genetically modified food, alternative energy, nanotechnology, assisted reproduction, surveillance technologies…
Yet how many times are our political leaders confronted on these issues? What do we know about their attitude, perception and prejudices about research, pseudoscience and teaching science?
Whenever a party unveils its political platform, whenever a candidate is questioned about his or her electoral promises, whenever the leaders face off in a television debate, we regret that the policies regarding two of the most important issues of our time – science and technology – are swept under the rug. This is why we want to ensure that this no longer happens.
I’m taking a stand for science is a non-partisan initiative that appeals for a public, televised debate among the candidates in the next Québec and Canadian elections.
Such a debate would go well beyond science. The investments we make today in research will have an impact on technological innovation in the coming decades. Our energy choices will determine how we adapt to climate change and influence the quality of our ecosystems. Today’s moral concerns will be tomorrow’s ethical limits in medicine, genetics, privacy protection and our lifestyles. Educational priorities will have an impact on the place Québec schoolchildren of 2008 will occupy in a globalized economy 20 years from now.
In other words, such a television debate would allow our future elected representatives to explore in depth their real priorities, their vision of education and how they view the future of our society.
SEVEN MAJOR ISSUES
• Putting an end to dependence on oil. Fifty years from now, we must have changed direction, and this isn’t the type of change that can turn on a dime. Should we invest in wind energy, solar, biofuels, nuclear power?
• Protecting the environment. This has become an economic issue. The destruction of lakes and rivers will cost so much that even companies are starting to worry. The extinction of species can upset the food chain to an extent that nobody can predict. Finally, the question has a moral aspect: what kind of planet do we want to leave to our descendants?
• Adapting to climate change. The sooner we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the better, but the damage is already done. Changes are happening and will require adaptability, from agricultural disruption to the progression of imported infectious diseases and displacement of populations.
• Editing the book of life. Authorize more GMOs? Pursue stem cell research? What about the possibility of altering a baby’s genes before birth to make him “better and improved”?
• Tomorrow’s health. Genetic testing for everyone is knocking at the door. Is the population ready for the shock? What respite do we have before antibiotics can’t handle new mutations? Where do we want to invest as a priority: in the fight against aging diseases, in medications against psychological disorders, or in the war on “curable” diseases that are decimating poor countries?
• Technological innovation. While it’s true that we have entered the “knowledge society”, then our society’s capacity to innovate will determine its place on the playing field. Who will be the Bombardier of the 21st century? Where will Québec position itself in genetic research, information technology, aerospace or pharmaceuticals?
• What role will scientific culture play? Canadian students generally perform well in international surveys. But with the rise of Asia, will they stay competitive for long? What about the general public? Can we continue to be satisfied with the meagre place given to scientific popularization in the media and public institutions?