"Science is not just the collection of facts but a process of discovery"
Abruptly fired in June for no stated reason, Dr. John Wilmshurst has stayed quiet about his situation while other former Parks Canada staff, civil servants and friends of the science community have criticized his dismissal as another example of the government censoring science.
But there’s a new federal government in power now, and The Jasper Local wanted to know if John would be sending his resumé back in to JNP and if he’d be willing to talk about the ordeal.
Turns out, no! To both questions, in fact. However, he did agree to sit down and talk about science in general. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Jasper Local: What’s something that people might not realize about science?
John Wilmshurst: The popular notion that scientists are not creative is false. They’re actually extremely creative in finding ways to answer questions. They have to be true to that information, but the actual process of identifying phenomenon you want to discover more about, and finding a way to understand it and unravel it is a creative process.
Sometimes we in the media get (or create) the impression that science is at odds with industry. Is this the case?
No, in fact industry requires science. Engineering is a science, for example. All of the things industry uses to make technology has its basis in science. So it’s not at odds but the use of technology has to be mindful. Science itself has to be mindful.
How do scientists distance themselves from their data? I’ve always found it hard to understand how scientists can pour themselves into research but then not become activists for what they find.
Like in any pursuit there’s a spectrum of personalities. When you start stepping into advocacy you start changing how you think about what data you should be collecting. In academia you’re given the freedom of pursuing or discovering in the absence of judgement. They take that very seriously, to society’s benefit.
Did you find it hard throughout your career to make that distinction?
I did find it hard, but I made an explicit decision to learn how to apply that work that led me down a road, not of advocacy, but in converting that science knowledge into management.
Is it tricky for a scientist to cross that realm into advocacy or activism? Is it dangerous?
I don’t think dangerous is the right word. It’s a conscious decision you have to make and if you’re making it unconsciously you can lose your credibility.
Notwithstanding themes we see in the media lately, like more centralized policy control and message management, what are the types of things that hamper research for Canadian scientists?
Like it does for everyone: funding.
Do scientists feel a responsibility for making a case for their areas of research?
I think it has changed. The Natural Science, Engineering and Research Council are the body that funds natural science in Canada. They were set up with the intent that basic research, research that doesn’t necessarily have any practical application, can still proceed. The focus was on the question, not on whether it could be applied to some economic gain. Now there’s a greater focus on applying the work to industrial use. So you get more funding, and sometimes you only get funding, if there’s an industrial partner. I think a lot of scientists are concerned about that gradual shift.
What is leadership an important quality in the scientific fields today?
Every field has to have people who want to keep their head in the trenches and others who take more of a leadership role and move these big issues forward. I’m a big fan of Dr. David Schindler, he’s faced a lot of challenges in his career and he’s taken a leadership role in this country as a credible scientist who has an important message and who holds the government’s feet to the fire to do the right thing for all Canadians.
Why do you think climate change is such a divisive issue?
It’s a big issue, it affects everyone in many different ways. It’s going to affect the future world that we live in, it’s going to affect what we’re allowed to do. It’s forcing humanity to ask big questions. The developed countries are the ones who have to step up and who are the most reluctant to do so. But I’m not a climate change scientist. I was involved in a project on the Athabasca glacier. What you see when you do that was interesting. For me that was the trigger.
I’m curious as to where your expertise will take you next.
So am I. I’ve always been committed to conservation. It’s a big thing. The things that I learned working here I could apply working in a broad number of fields. What I want to be able to do is work towards conservation.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity