This is a short interview of Dr. David Schindler, conducted by the Freshwater Society through email.
Q. Over your career, how much of your time has been spent working with policy-makers?
Schindler — It has been highly variable depending on the problem and how willing policy makers were to seek scientific advice. A 40-year average is probably about 20%.
Q. What are the biggest issues of our time that need scientific grounding and are not getting enough of it?
Schindler — Of probems that are on the radar, climate change and its implications for ecosystems and biogeochemistry. But there is an even bigger one that most scientists don’t even talk about for fear of seeming racist. That is the human population problem. Both the U.S. and Canada are making huge mistakes by both encouraging high birth rates and high immigration rates. These, coupled with high consumption, are the real human problem, with climate being just one aspect.
Q. Do you see any difference between Canadian and U.S. policy-makers in their respect for science and their willingness to accept guidance?
Schindler — A few years ago, under Prime Minister Paul Martin and President George W. Bush, I would have said Canada was better, at least with respect to those with the power to make decisions. Today, under Stephen Harper and Barack Obama, it has reversed. But both countries have rigid right wings with strongly fundamentalist backgrounds and poor education that are very suspicious of science, believing that science is a great conspiracy.
Q. Are the policy-makers any less willing than their constituents – the general public — to accept science that tells them they have to do things differently than they would prefer to do them?
Schindler — Again, huge variation. I think on average, they are about the same. The day seems to be gone when we elect leaders for their brilliance. People want representation by those who are just like them.
Q. Do you think people on the right side of the political spectrum are any more likely to reject science than those on the left?
Schindler — Yes, on average, because of the strongly fundamentalist religious and ideology-driven elements, as I mentioned. Also many right-wingers seem to believe that economy must trump all other human values in their decisions. But it would be unfair to say that all right-singers are like that, some are strong science advocates.
Q. How much blame do scientists bear for failing to influence and lead public policy? What should they do differently?
Schindler — I think that the fault lies in an old scientific culture that considered it unseemly to participate in politics. There are still many around today who frown on those who do, regarding them as some sort of inferior scientist. In reality, policies are gobbling up our planet too fast to expect enlightened policy-makers to find relevant science to underpin their policies in huge academic libraries.
We must put it before them, and expect that if they do not use it, their reasons for not doing so will be made clear. Universities are part of the problem. They do not reward public participation.
Scientists also need to learn to speak in language that policy-makers can understand. (The reverse is also true: a Canadian senior scientist or bureaucrat with a science portfolio must learn French, but nothing about science!