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TED2018

Kirsty Duncan: Scientists must be free to learn, to speak and to challenge

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"You do not mess with something so fundamental, so precious, as science," says Kirsty Duncan, Canada's first Minister of Science. In a heartfelt, inspiring talk about pushing boundaries, she makes the case that researchers must be free to present uncomfortable truths and challenge the thinking of the day -- and that we all have a duty to speak up when we see science being stifled or suppressed.

- Politician, scientist
Kirsty Duncan works for all Canadians to nurture science in Canada and encourages people of all ages to have inquisitive minds. Full bio

Let me tell you about rock snot.
00:12
Since 1992, Dr. Max Bothwell,
00:19
a Government of Canada scientist,
00:22
has been studying a type of algae
that grows on rocks.
00:25
Now, the very unscientific term
for that algae is rock snot,
00:30
because as you can imagine,
00:37
it looks a lot like snot.
00:39
But scientists also call it
Didymosphenia geminata
00:43
and for decades, this algae
has been sliming up riverbeds
00:48
around the world.
00:53
The problem with this algae
00:55
is that it is a threat to salmon, to trout
00:57
and the river ecosystems it invades.
01:01
Now, it turns out Canada's Dr. Bothwell
01:05
is actually a world expert in the field,
01:08
so it was no surprise in 2014
01:12
when a reporter contacted Dr. Bothwell
01:17
for a story on the algae.
01:20
The problem was, Dr. Bothwell
wasn't allowed to speak to the reporter,
01:23
because the government of the day
wouldn't let him.
01:30
110 pages of emails
01:35
and 16 government communication experts
01:38
stood in Dr. Bothwell's way.
01:42
Why couldn't Dr. Bothwell speak?
01:46
Well, we'll never know for sure,
01:50
but Dr. Bothwell's research did suggest
01:52
that climate change
may have been responsible
01:56
for the aggressive algae blooms.
02:00
But who the heck would want to stifle
climate change information, right?
02:03
Yes, you can laugh.
02:12
It's a joke,
02:14
because it is laughable.
02:16
We know that climate change
is suppressed for all sorts of reasons.
02:19
I saw it firsthand
when I was a university professor.
02:25
We see it when countries pull out
of international climate agreements
02:29
like the Kyoto Protocol
and the Paris Accord,
02:35
and we see it when industry fails
to meet its emissions reduction targets.
02:39
But it's not just climate change
information that's being stifled.
02:45
So many other scientific issues
are obscured by alternate facts,
02:50
fake news and other forms of suppression.
02:57
We've seen it in the United Kingdom,
03:02
we've seen it in Russia,
03:04
we've seen it in the United States
03:06
and, until 2015,
03:09
right here in Canada.
03:11
In our modern technological age,
03:15
when our very survival
depends on discovery,
03:18
innovation and science,
03:22
it is critical, absolutely critical,
03:25
that our scientists are free
to undertake their work,
03:29
free to collaborate with other scientists,
03:33
free to speak to the media
03:37
and free to speak to the public.
03:39
Because after all,
03:42
science is humanity's best effort
at uncovering the truth
03:44
about our world,
03:50
about our very existence.
03:52
Every new fact that is uncovered
03:55
adds to the growing body
of our collective knowledge.
03:57
Scientists must be free to explore
04:03
unconventional or controversial topics.
04:07
They must be free to challenge
the thinking of the day
04:11
and they must be free
04:15
to present uncomfortable
or inconvenient truths,
04:16
because that's how scientists
push boundaries
04:24
and pushing boundaries is, after all,
what science is all about.
04:27
And here's another point:
04:32
scientists must be free to fail,
04:34
because even a failed hypothesis
teaches us something.
04:38
And the best way I can explain that
is through one of my own adventures.
04:43
But first I've got
to take you back in time.
04:48
It's the early 1900s
04:53
and Claire and Vera
are roommates in southern Ontario.
04:55
One evening during the height
of the Spanish flu pandemic,
05:00
the two attend a lecture together.
05:04
The end of the evening,
they head for home and for bed.
05:08
In the morning, Claire calls up to Vera
05:12
and says she's going out to breakfast.
05:15
When she returns a short while later,
05:19
Vera wasn't up.
05:22
She pulls back the covers
05:24
and makes the gruesome discovery.
05:27
Vera was dead.
05:30
When it comes to Spanish flu,
05:34
those stories are common,
05:36
of lightning speed deaths.
05:38
Well, I was a professor in my mid-20s
05:42
when I first heard those shocking facts
05:45
and the scientist in me
wanted to know why and how.
05:49
My curiosity would lead me
to a frozen land
05:55
and to lead an expedition
05:59
to uncover the cause
of the 1918 Spanish flu.
06:01
I wanted to test our current drugs against
one of history's deadliest diseases.
06:06
I hoped we could make a flu vaccine
06:12
that would be effective against the virus
06:15
and mutation of it,
06:18
should it ever return.
06:20
And so I led a team, a research team,
06:24
of 17 men
06:29
from Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom
06:31
and the United States
06:35
to the Svalbard Islands
in the Arctic Ocean.
06:37
These islands are between
Norway and the North Pole.
06:41
We exhumed six bodies
06:46
who had died of Spanish flu
and were buried in the permafrost
06:49
and we hoped the frozen ground
would preserve the body and the virus.
06:53
Now, I know what you are all waiting for,
06:59
that big scientific payoff.
07:02
But my science story doesn't have
that spectacular Hollywood ending.
07:06
Most don't.
07:12
Truth is, we didn't find the virus,
07:14
but we did develop new techniques
07:18
to safely exhume bodies
07:21
that might contain virus.
07:24
We did develop new techniques
07:26
to safely remove tissue
07:29
that might contain virus.
07:32
And we developed new safety protocols
07:35
to protect our research team
and the nearby community.
07:38
We made important contributions to science
07:44
even though the contributions we made
07:47
were not the ones originally intended.
07:51
In science, attempts fail,
07:55
results prove inconclusive
07:58
and theories don't pan out.
08:01
In science,
08:04
research builds upon the work
and knowledge of others,
08:07
or by seeing further,
08:11
by standing on the shoulders of giants,
08:13
to paraphrase Newton.
08:16
The point is, scientists must be free
08:18
to choose what they want to explore,
08:22
what they are passionate about
08:26
and they must be free
to report their findings.
08:28
You heard me say
08:33
that respect for science
started to improve in Canada in 2015.
08:34
How did we get here?
08:40
What lessons might we have to share?
08:42
Well, it actually goes back
to my time as a professor.
08:46
I watched while agencies, governments
and industries around the world
08:51
suppressed information on climate change.
08:56
It infuriated me.
09:01
It kept me up at night.
09:03
How could politicians
twist scientific fact for partisan gain?
09:05
So I did what anyone
appalled by politics would do:
09:13
I ran for office, and I won.
09:18
(Applause)
09:21
I thought I would use my new platform
09:27
to talk about the importance of science.
09:31
It quickly became a fight
for the freedom of science.
09:35
After all, I was a scientist,
I came from the world under attack,
09:40
and I had personally felt the outrage.
09:45
I could be a voice
for those who were being silenced.
09:50
But I quickly learned
that scientists were nervous,
09:55
even afraid to talk to me.
10:00
One government scientist,
a friend of mine,
10:02
we'll call him McPherson,
10:05
was concerned about the impact
10:08
government policies
were having on his research
10:11
and the state of science
deteriorating in Canada.
10:16
He was so concerned, he wrote to me
10:20
from his wife's email account
10:23
because he was afraid
a phone call could be traced.
10:26
He wanted me to phone
his wife's cell phone
10:30
so that call couldn't be traced.
10:34
I only wish I were kidding.
10:37
It quickly brought what was happening
in Canada into sharp focus for me.
10:41
How could my friend of 20 years
be that afraid to talk to me?
10:47
So I did what I could at the time.
10:53
I listened and I shared what I learned
10:56
with my friend in Parliament,
11:01
a man who was interested
in all things environment, science,
11:04
technology, innovation.
11:08
And then the 2015 election rolled around
11:12
and our party won.
11:16
And we formed government.
11:19
And that friend of mine
11:21
is now the Prime Minister
of Canada, Justin Trudeau.
11:25
(Applause)
11:28
And he asked if I would serve
as his Minister of Science.
11:34
Together, with the rest of the government,
11:38
we are working hard to restore
science to its rightful place.
11:41
I will never forget that day
in December 2015
11:47
when I proudly stood in Parliament
11:53
and proclaimed,
11:56
"The war on science is now over."
11:57
(Applause)
12:02
And I have worked hard
to back up those words with actions.
12:08
We've had many successes.
12:12
There's still more work to do,
12:15
because we're building this culture shift.
12:18
But we want our government scientists
to talk to the media, talk to the public.
12:21
It'll take time, but we are committed.
12:27
After all, Canada is seen
as a beacon for science internationally.
12:30
And we want to send a message
12:36
that you do not mess
with something so fundamental,
12:40
so precious, as science.
12:44
So, for Dr. Bothwell, for Claire and Vera,
12:49
for McPherson and all those other voices,
12:54
if you see that science is being stifled,
suppressed or attacked,
12:58
speak up.
13:04
If you see that scientists
are being silenced, speak up.
13:05
We must hold our leaders to account.
13:11
Whether that is
by exercising our right to vote,
13:15
whether it is by penning
an op-ed in a newspaper
13:19
or by starting a conversation
on social media,
13:23
it is our collective voice
that will ensure the freedom of science.
13:28
And after all, science is for everyone,
13:34
and it will lead to a better,
brighter, bolder future for us all.
13:39
Thank you.
13:45
(Applause)
13:47

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About the speaker:

Kirsty Duncan - Politician, scientist
Kirsty Duncan works for all Canadians to nurture science in Canada and encourages people of all ages to have inquisitive minds.

Why you should listen

Kirsty Duncan is the Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities for the Government of Canada. As a member of Parliament, she has been the voice on Parliament Hill for the citizens of Etobicoke-North since 2008. Duncan has also been a driving force for putting science front and center in the federal government's agenda. She is committed to strengthening science and evidence-based decision making and fostering a culture of curiosity in Canada. And she is taking action to improve equity, diversity and youth participation in Canada’s research community.

Duncan is a medical geographer who led an expedition to remote Svalbard, Norway, to search for the cause of the Spanish Flu, the deadliest of flu pandemics, which has killed upwards of 50 million people worldwide. She is internationally recognized as a leading expert in pandemic influenza and environmental change and its impact on human health. As a fierce defender of the environment, Duncan contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization which, jointly with Al Gore, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Prior to entering politics in 2008, Duncan was an associate professor at the University of Toronto and the University of Windsor.

More profile about the speaker
Kirsty Duncan | Speaker | TED.com