Canadians Have Cross-Party Science Debate

With less than 10 days before the Parliamentary elections, representatives of four of Canada’s major parties participated in a science debate hosted by the CBC radio program Quirks and Quarks.  Program host Bob McDonald moderated the debate, as he did for a local science debate in Victoria, British Columbia last month.  The full audio is available for listening.

There were representatives participating from the ruling Conservative Party, the Official Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), the Liberal Party, and the Green Party.  Questions covered greenhouse gas emissions, the Conservatives’ policy on managing communications by government scientists about their research, and the parties stances on federal funding of research.

Notably each of the representatives were either trained in science and technology and/or have experience with those issues in government.  The Conservative representative was Gary Goodyear, who served for a time as Minister of State for Science and Technology under Prime Minister Harper.  The NDP representative was Megan Leslie, who has represented her party in Parliament as Critic (the Canadian term for a shadow minister) for Health and for Environment.  Marc Garneau represented the Liberal Party.  He is a former Canadian astronaut and headed the Canadian Space Agency prior to running for office.  His training is in physics and electrical engineering.  Representing the Green Party was Lynne Quarmby, who is the Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University.

What would be the American equivalent of this debate?  Controlling for the differences between our presidential system and the Canadian parliamentary system, I think it could be one of two possible scenarios:

  • A debate between the Chairs and Ranking Members of the Congressional committees involved in science and technology matters.  As the number of committees engaged in those topics grows, it’s no longer accurate to say that one particular committee (really two, one for each chamber in Congress) is the definitive science and technology committee.  This arrangement could be done for every election year, not just the ones where a presidential race is on the ballot.
  • A debate between the leaders of the major science and technology agencies in Congress and designees from the relevant campaigns.  In the case of an election with no incumbent President, it would be all designees.  I think this would be problematic because I would not expect candidates to have their potential agency heads identified months in advance of the election.  I also think the potential debaters may be reluctant to participate for concerns over making a future confirmation hearing more difficult for them.  An advantage, I think, for the parliamentary cross-party debates is that the participants are typically themselves up for election.  But the stronger division between the executive and legislative branches in the U.S. presidential system has advantages I’d rather not give up.

The equivalent debate would probably be on Science Friday and/or C-SPAN Radio, assuming there were willing participants.  Given the circus atmosphere surrounding our presidential debates (which is not unique to this year), I’d understand any reluctance to participate in something which would require more detail and ask for additional scrutiny than the broader gabfests we’ve gotten used to in the U.S.

But back to the Canadians.  I’m very happy to see that they were able to organize and execute a debate like yesterday’s as quickly as they did.  May you all have a happy Thanksgiving and get out to vote on the 19th.

Petitioning The Government To Update Electronic Communications Law

One of the petitions that generated a response from the U.S. government this summer concerned outdated laws on electronic communications.  The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) was passed by Congress back in 1986 and was intended to update wiretapping laws to reflect the advent of e-mail and comparable electronic communications.

There has been action in Congress over the last several years to try and update the legislation.  Senator Leahy of Vermont, who was instrumental in crafting the initial legislation, understands the need to update it and has worked with others to extend the protection of a warrant to many forms of electronic communications stored with third parties.  Based on the 1986 laws, electronic communications could only be accessed with a warrant if they were kept with the individual.  But with web-based and cloud-based services, many electronic communications are held with third parties.  As such, after 180 days no warrant is necessary to access such communications.

The Administration was supportive of ECPA reform in its response, but since updates to this and other privacy laws have gone through the Congressional process several times without sniffing the President’s desk, it’s not clear from the response that the Administration is likely to expend much political capital on the latest bill supporting ECPA reform.

We The People – A Meaningful Tool For Disease Advocacy?

A fair number of petitions on the We The People site focus on individual matters.  This could be a petition about a bestowing an honor on a particular person, seeking some kind of criminal proceeding (or the ending of same), or resolving some injustice.  Individual matters can also include specific species or diseases.

A petition on sickle cell disease (one type of which is sickle cell anemia) was started last September and gathered enough signatures to receive a response from the Administration.  While the petition mentions support for a particular piece of legislation (which did not advance in the last Congress) the Administration’s response focused, as is its custom, on executive branch actions.

The response describes how the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control are doing to improve understanding and awareness of Sickle Cell Disease.

Now, from an uninformed outsider, this seems to be a case where the Administration response implies a message of ‘don’t worry about it, we’re giving it the level of attention that (the petitioners) want.’  Presumably the disease organizations that spearheaded the petition drive have been doing other things to make sure Sickle Cell Disease gets the attention they think a national health priority warrants.  But I wouldn’t blame anyone who considers the response little more than lip service.

Petition Site Dabbles In Science And Technology Topics

In late July the White House announced a revision of its We The People petition site, and released several petition responses at the same time.  Some of those petitions addressed science and technology topics.  I’m very late in getting back to this, but it’s worth exploring each of those responses, if only briefly.

In February of this year, a petition was filed to ban the mandatory vaccination of anyone for any reason.  Not that the Administration seriously considered agreeing with the petitioner, the response was very thorough and accompanied by a video message from the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy.  In the response both Murthy and President Obama are quoted on the necessity of vaccination and the benefits of the same.  The response notes that state and local laws typically determine vaccination policies for school admission, and that typically employers are the parties responsible for any vaccination policies for their employees.

New Australian PM Leads To New Australian Science Minister

The recent Liberal Party reshuffle in Australia produced a new Prime Minister, and PM Malcolm Turnbull has since announced his cabinet ministers.

Among them is MP Christopher Pyne, who leaves his education portfolio to become Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science.  Pyne takes over for Ian Macfarlane, who no longer has a ministerial position.  Pyne has been involved with Australian science policy through his participation in the Commonwealth Science Council.  He remains Leader of the House in the Australian Parliament.  This is the government minister that runs how the government (the executive branch) manages its business in the legislature.  (For those in parliamentary systems, pardon the pedantism.)

Pyne’s training is not in science or engineering – not a particular surprise for a position like this.  He’s been in Parliament for 22 years, and between that tenure and his current legislative position, he stands in a good place to insert science policy into the legislative agenda.

Whether he will is unclear to me.  As the recently departed Yogi Berra has said, you can observe a lot by watching.

More On That Canadian Science Debate – Please Send Topics and Questions

Commenter Aerin Jacob reached out with some information on an upcoming Canadian election debate in Victoria, British Columbia.  It will take place on September 23, and be moderated by Bob McDonald, who hosts Quirks & Quarks on the CBC.  This is the debate I linked to in my September 1 post.

While it does not involve the candidates for Prime Minister, there are confirmed representatives from the Liberal, New Democratic and Green Parties participating in this debate.  Each of them are standing for election in ridings in the Greater Victoria area.  Aerin is asking for suggestions on both topics to cover and questions to ask.  If you have any to offer, please respond via the link provided in the comment.

An invitation to participate in the debate was extended to four major parties in Canada, and the Conservatives may yet send a representative on September 23.  The organizers intend to have a live-stream available, and if I find out that link in time, I will post and/or Tweet about it.

Colo(u)r Me Optimistic About A Canadian Science Debate

Last month I noted the call for a science debate among party leaders in Canada in advance of the October 19 Parliamentary elections.  With my usual measure of skepticism (easily conflated with cynicism, even by me), I suggested that those advocating for such a debate aim a bit lower, say at the ministerial level rather than at the party leaders.

If you follow Science Borealis, a Canadian science policy blog of note, you can read about how successful (certainly compared to U.S. efforts) Canadians have been in getting science debates held in connection with provincial elections.

And at least one media program is trying to produce one.  All they can say at the moment is…

And this, about an event in Victoria, presumably focused on candidates in British Columbia.

This is very encouraging.