Last October, we attended the Science Policy conference. While there, we met with Marc Garneau, MP for Westmount/Ville-Marie.
Originally from Quebec City, Dr. Garneau moved to London to complete a PhD in Electrical Engineering. He was the first Canadian in space and, from 2001 to 2006, was president of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). We discussed his science and engineering background as it relates to his recent political endeavours.
How did your background as an astronaut shape your focus on politics?
Well, being an astronaut has had an important influence on me becoming a politician. I had the chance to go in space and I witnessed that we as humanity are putting a lot of strain on our environment—an environment that we globally share—and I saw many signs of this with my own eyes, looking down at Earth. I have been around it over 400 times and seeing that we, almost 7 billion of us, are putting a big strain on the planet. So the environment became a priority for me as a result of my space flights. Becoming a politician allows you perhaps to have more of an influence, because it’s politicians who ultimately make decisions as to which direction the country goes in and what priority it gives to the environment. Ultimately, that’s why I went into politics: to have a voice in shaping science policy.
Do you see yourself primarily as an astronaut?
People usually think of me as an astronaut but I was also at the Canadian Space Agency; I spent my life as an engineer, did research at university for my PhD, so I have a science/engineering background. There are very few politicians who are from that background, and it would be great if we had a little more voice in the House of Commons.
When you interact with politicians, how is it different than when you interact with other researchers?
They’re very different. Researchers are focused on a goal, which is to discover something or to verify a hypothesis (one way or the other). It’s a very focused activity. Politics, as many people have described it, is an occupation where you want to achieve very lofty goal for the good of your country. But it has to be tempered by what you can actually do in practice. You have to put water in your wine because you can rarely do exactly what you would like to do. But you try to do the best you can, given the limitations and the necessity of compromise.
How much has science driven the way you propose policies?
Very much. I think I know how scientists think, I believe I know what research means. And I think that allows me to better appreciate their challenges and their realities. This allows me to make a more informed decision about what science policy should be for the country. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. It doesn’t mean that because you’re not a scientist, you can’t do science policy; there are some excellent politicians who are lawyers and who understand it well enough to fashion good science policy. But all things being equal, with that kind of a background, perhaps you can do it even better