More reason, less rhetoric: It’s time for scientists and researchers to speak up on tough topics

By Mark Mann

Managing Editor, RE$EARCH MONEY

It’s easy to comprehend why someone whose livelihood has been compromised by falling oil prices, and for whom the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline offers the prospect of restored prosperity, would celebrate the fighting stance recently adopted by Alberta’s UPC government. The so-called War Room won’t have much of an impact on efforts to block the pipeline, other than galvanizing protestors, but at least it promises to restore a sense of balance for those who feel stymied and maligned by climate activists.

Whatever messaging Alberta Premier Jason Kenney can buy with this $30-million investment, the War Room makes one thing clear: the polarizing national debate over what to do about our dependence on Alberta’s oil riches is devolving rapidly. We shouldn’t be surprised. The conflict was never going to be genteel — people’s jobs are on the line, not to mention the fate of the planet, depending on which side you prefer.  But the War Room also highlights the relative absence of scientists and researchers in these all-important discussions.

As Robert Luke argues in his column, researchers aren’t properly incentivized to contribute to the public discourse. The granting system almost exclusively rewards them for talking to each other, by way of peer-reviewed journals. Too often, it’s left to outspoken laypeople — be they journalists or speechifiers — to interpret or misinterpret the results. For this reason and many more, Canada should be rewarding researchers for communicating to a wider audience.

If Kenney wants to spend his money on communications, he would do better to promote the important applied research being done in his province, which is a global leader in developing carbon-capture technologies (see Mark Lowey’s story). Every government, whatever their political stripe, must ultimately set an energy strategy that aims beyond fossil fuels. Clean tech offers a transitional path, and Alberta’s innovators are some of the best in the world. That’s worth celebrating.