For the past few weeks, Sheila Colla’s Twitter feed has been pretty evenly split.
Colla tweets about the buff-tailed bumble bee and other species that she studies as a conservation biologist. She posts pictures from the bumble bee conference her lab organized, and links to newly-published bumble bee studies.
She also frequently retweets NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, and her endorsements for her local New Democrat candidate. She highlighted her own encouragement to “vote for something different,” with an orange emoji attached for good measure.
For Colla, politics are a direct outgrowth from her research as a scientist.
“I could continue just doing my science, and keep looking for the rusty-patched bumble bee” — a critically endangered species — “until it totally disappears,” says Colla, a professor at York University.
“Or I could actually try to help parties that are willing to do the hard work to reverse some of this stuff, to help them get some power to make these policy changes — or at least inform them.”
Not that long ago, researchers were still debating the appropriateness of weighing in on government decision-making generally. In this election cycle, it has not been particularly uncommon or controversial to see scientists openly supporting specific politicians and parties.
The scientists who do — particularly the ones who work on climate science or conservation — echo each others’ rationales.
They feel compelled by the urgency of their work, as they witness the rapid deterioration of the natural environment and the looming threats posed by climate change. And they feel their depth of knowledge on these issues is of value to society and to the average, non-scientist Canadian voter.
“If we are not, as scientists, going to stand up for the evidence, what do we stand for at all? Why do we even exist, as a societal indulgence? We are supposed to be good at gathering information and formulating general rules about how the world works,” says Jeremy Kerr, an ecologist who studies the impact of climate change on biodiversity at the University of Ottawa.
“If our contribution is silence when society needs to hear about reality, then I think we are conceding the very territory science has asked us to occupy.”
But though the scientists the Star spoke to all said they had followed the facts to arrive at a party they support, they do not all support the same party. Kerr is a vocal Liberal supporter, at least in this election.
“We just don’t have time” for small third or fourth parties, he says. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has calculated that greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut in half in 11 years to avoid dire planetary outcomes.
“This was four years of pretty good government for us. All kinds of indicators, in a quantitative way, have gone well.”
For molecular biologist Lynne Quarmby, her current role volunteering to help re-elect B.C. Green party MP Paul Manly is actually a step back from the political ring. In the 2015 election, she ran unsuccessfully for the Greens in Burnaby North—Seymour.
Green leader Elizabeth May asked Quarmby to run after the scientist was arrested while protesting the Trans Mountain pipeline — her second arrest for an act of environmental civil disobedience.
Quarmby, whose lab recently shifted to studying the microbes on the snowy slopes of mountains — a microbial community that will likely vanish as the planet warms — came to climate activism via science.
“I looked at [the data], and I was able to understand the urgency. It’s right there,” says Quarmby.
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“Then I started paying attention to the politics. I was really perplexed … governments weren’t acting.”
She was drawn to the Greens because she felt they had the most fulsome response to the climate crisis. She wants them to be at the table in Ottawa. “The three major parties on some level or another are all in denial,” she says.
Kerr, meanwhile, voiced similar reasons for backing the much more centrist Liberals. “As a climate-change person, what I care about on that issue is an evidence-based approach that demonstrates progress,” he says, pointing to a review by two scientists of the major party policies on climate, which gave the Liberals a B for ambition but an A for feasibility.
For Colla, the NDP had the policies that best addressed biodiversity loss and climate change while also addressing how these problems intersect with issues of race, class and gender.
“A lot of scientists trained as ecologists like me and we were never really taught about how it’s important to have an anti-oppression lens when we’re looking at our subject area. The NDP, because they’re both tackling social justice and the environment, I think that gives you so much more ability to actually have a positive impact.”
Though they report a similar impression that scientists are supposed to remain impartial, Colla, Kerr and Quarmby have not experienced negative blowback from their vocal politics. In fact, says Quarmby, “I think my colleagues are proud of me.”
Kai Chan, a professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, has found some evidence for a shift in scientists’ opinions on engaging in policy and advocacy.
A 2003 survey found low support among scientists for venturing beyond simply interpreting scientific data. But Chan’s 2014 followup found that when research findings agree with a policy opinion, half of scientists would be willing to advocate.
Chan — who is also a co-author of the May UN global assessment that found up to a million species could go extinct — openly supports the Green party.
“Generally, we have a responsibility as citizens to be active about things that we believe in,” says Chan.
“In particular, scientists have a responsibility to be active about things we have special knowledge of … so many of us are actually paid by taxpayers, and a part of our job is to educate the public, not just our students in the classroom.”
He adds: “Times have changed. The sense of urgency coming out of the science has been escalating dramatically.”