Smart scientists make dumb protest decisions

Correct me if I’m wrong – I don’t think “smart” people make fun of the taxpayers who fund them and the politicians that make spending decisions.

My brother hunts with beagles. The best photo he ever sent was of a “heap ‘o hounds,” four dogs collapsed together, a hilarious pile of big paws, long ears, and sensitive noses, sleeping in blissful, oblivious contentment.

“It’s good to be part of a pack,” my brother observed.

Viewing coverage of the protests by scientists organized for Earth Day, I can’t help but draw comparisons to my brother’s hounds: they were blissful, but oblivious.

Scientists are the most recent group to adopt the tactic of street protests which make everyone feel excited and empowered to be part of a pack but do little to advance their cause among elected officials.

Take, for example, teachers and the Mike Harris government. Aggrieved teachers took to the streets to protest Ontario’s new funding formula; inside government, we scrambled to respond to what appeared to be a public relations nightmare.

In fact, the team around Harris had gleaned through polling that the more the teachers protested, the more Harris’ approval ratings went UP; we actually began planning events that would attract protesters. Mike Harris easily won a second majority government in 1999.

The taxi industry in Toronto loves printing up yellow t-shirts and packing City Hall when taxi issues come up. In planning sessions I asked: “Why are we doing this? Councillors hate it when we do this. They feel threatened and intimidated. We are not allowed to speak or even clap. Why are we doing this?”

Because, the industry loves it. The Rotunda is a cross between old home week and a family reunion, thoroughly enjoyed by all. We lost every vote at council, though.

In 2009, I attended the Science Communications program at Banff with about 20 Ph.D scientists who were there to learn how to communicate science more effectively. At that time and in the years since, I have warned many of the good people I met, “Do not get into public protests. You will destroy your credibility, and garner no sympathy from politicians or taxpayers. Don’t become just another special interest group whining for more money. Don’t try to become politicians; they will not trust your advice if you try to compete with them as politicians.” Clearly, I lost that debate.

Under Stephen Harper, scientists paraded around Ottawa carrying a coffin, mourning “The Death of Science.” On Earth Day, 2017, they protested the Trudeau budget, taking their sector even further down the road toward being labelled as a group that will run out of governments to protest.

And yet, one of the Banff faculty members, who teaches journalism at an American university, posted this:

“I’ve been advocating for scientists to become more engaged in communication, policy, and politics for at least 20 years…I’m struck by how very far we’ve come and optimistic for what comes next.”

The coverage I saw had scientists waving signs that said, “Make America Smart Again” – mocking the president whose government will make funding decisions and insulting taxpayers who are not as “smart” as they are. Scientists should not play politics; they should not protest in the street. They should not call taxpayers stupid.

No matter how great it feels to be part of a pack.

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