Autumn 2016 / Feature
Bringing Science Back

Can alumna Kirsty Duncan rejuvenate Canadian discovery and innovation?

Profile photo of Kirsty Duncan

Kirsty Duncan (BA 1986 UC), Canada’s minister of science. Photo: Jessica Deeks

It’s a slow morning in June at the House of Commons, where a handful of MPs are trading speeches before the glitz and quips of afternoon question period. Kirsty Duncan (BA 1989 UC), Canada’s new federal minister of science, is on House duty and that requires sticking close by, ready to duck back in should a surprise vote be called and the government need the support of its MPs. The languid pace seems a far cry from the adventurous research expedition that propelled Duncan, a medical geographer, into the public spotlight at age 27. That was the year she launched a mission to take a multinational team of experts to the Norwegian Arctic to exhume seven bodies buried in permafrost in the hopes of finding the cause of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed millions.

Duncan strides from a meeting in the members’ lounge just outside the House, her eyes gleaming as if every moment offered an opportunity to seize. She takes an interview in the rotunda where most of the action seems to be today, albeit in the form of security guards and teachers corralling rambunctious children on school tours. Duncan is unfazed by the cacophony, having coached kids in gymnastics, trampoline, diving, weightlifting and – of all things – Scottish dancing. It’s a fitting backdrop for two stories she tells me to explain why she left academia for politics and her biggest role yet: rejuvenating Canadian science after what many have called a lost decade.

The first story: In the early 1990s, when Duncan was a young professor at the University of Windsor, she asked students in her meteorology class if they believed in climate change; only two put up their hands. By the end of that decade, in response to the same question, she recalls all hands shooting up except two. Yet in Ottawa politicians seemed not to share the concern. Duncan deduced that either our elected officials weren’t getting the same facts about humans’ impact on the environment that her students were – or weren’t sufficiently compelled by the evidence to take action.

The second: When Duncan returned to U of T in 2003 to teach medical geography (the study of how location and climate affect health) at U of T Scarborough and corporate responsibility at the Rotman School of Management, a segment of her curriculum required students to do community service. Students could choose their group projects – caring for an acre of boreal forest, say, or holding a clothing drive for a homeless shelter – but what she wanted them to take away was this: “You learn the textbook, you learn the science, but you have to make a difference.” With a continued lack of political action on climate change and federal support for science eroding, the professor considered taking her own lessons about community service to heart. “I loved my research, I loved teaching,” says Duncan. “But I knew if I wanted to make a difference [on climate change] this was the time to do it.”

So when former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion asked her to run in 2008 – part of a bid to get more women into politics and bolster his “green shift” agenda – she said yes. Though Duncan won her riding handily, the Liberals were reduced to third-party status in that election. Soon after, the rookie MP found herself sharing the backbench with another former teacher – the future prime minister, Justin Trudeau. During long sessions in Parliament, the two often talked science policy. Ted Hsu, the Liberals’ former science and technology critic, credits Duncan with convincing the party to embrace key elements of the current government’s science policy. That is: create a chief science officer and carry out a comprehensive review of federal support for fundamental science, with an overall mission to increase funding for researchers; ensure that federally funded scientists can make their findings available to Canadians (as Duncan touts, “open data, open science”); and also “to make sure that scientific evidence makes it to the cabinet table” as the basis for sound policy-making.

Duncan says she has also tasked her department with an initiative of her own – to improve the opportunities for women in science, technology and engineering. “Thirty years ago, it was 20 per cent women [working in these disciplines],” says Duncan, “and today it’s 22 per cent. That’s totally unacceptable in 2016.” According to Statistics Canada, women who work in these fields are paid eight per cent less than men. And a recent survey of more than 500 female scientists by Professor Joan C. Williams at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, found that women face persistent gender bias, sexism and significant levels of sexual harassment in the workplace. The study concluded that this drives out qualified employees before they can reach leadership ranks and keeps talented women from entering the fields.

Duncan’s own experiences serve as a glaring example of the challenges women in science can face. In her book Hunting the 1918 Flu (University of Toronto Press, 2003), she shares meticulous records of what she has called “the dark side of science” – turf wars between senior scientists from different countries trying to take credit for a group mission she founded; reneging on promises to share samples; using research funding to claim seniority and control data; and, in media interviews, making searing personal attacks on her that likely would not have stuck had she looked more like most of the other members of the expedition team – older and male.

It’s clear the experience still stings and has made her wary of revealing personal details. Duncan says she prefers to let her book speak for itself, but notes that this was her takeaway: “I learned how to pull together a diverse group of people, who happened to be the world’s experts [in nine disciplines, including virology, neuropathology and geology]. I learned how to gain the trust of the community [in Norway, where the exhumations were conducted]. I learned how to fundraise. And I learned there are real challenges in male-dominated worlds.” She adds that she was inspired to write the book to make things better for the next generation of women researchers and is making this “a real push” as she travels across the country speaking to universities, research institutions, funding agencies and especially young women. She recalls a conversation with one who wanted to go into the coast guard but thought it was impossible for a woman. Duncan urged her to stick with her dream, as the minister clearly did. “I said impossible is an attitude. Impossible can be accomplished.”

One can trace Duncan’s ambition to her childhood home in western Toronto, near the riding she now represents, Etobicoke North. She was only the second in her family to go to university – after her mother, who graduated from U of T and became a phys-ed teacher. Her father, a supervisor of caretaking for the Toronto District School Board, played amateur baseball – pitching until he was 75 and “playing against 35-year-olds,” Duncan says proudly. “In our family, you had to be good at school, but you had to be better at sports.” Duncan excelled at gymnastics, practising three hours after school each day and eventually competing at U of T. Teammate Barb Brophey, now a senior athletic instructor with the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, believes gymnasts are among the strongest athletes, physically and mentally, as they must launch their bodies into the air and trust that training and skill will land them safely. “As you get older, especially, you have to have the mental toughness to say, ‘I know I can do this’ and to enjoy the challenge of it. My memory of Kirsty is she had an amazing work ethic and was a buzz of positive energy – extremely supportive of her teammates.”

After an injury derailed her gymnastics career, Duncan channeled her abundant vitality into distance running and completed eight Boston marathons. Her first and enduring love, however, is dance. Her close-knit family often spent summer weekends at Scottish festivals where Duncan participated in highland dancing. She grew up wanting a career in painting and dance – reflective, perhaps, of her uncommon depth of feeling. After our interview, she rushed me through a tour of her favourite architectural details in the House of Commons and then to the daily page-turning ceremony commemorating Canada’s fallen soldiers. At the end, tears welled up in her eyes.

Duncan enthuses that a first-year geography course at U of T “took us around the world in one lecture” and from that point on she “was hooked” on science and the thrill of discovery. She graduated from U of T with a BA in anthropology and geography. At the University of Edinburgh, she completed a combined master’s and PhD in geography, with a focus on climate change.

Now, Duncan presents herself as a tireless champion and advocate of science, after what she calls the previous government’s “war on science.” She points out that during Stephen Harper’s three terms Canada fell from third to eighth place in higher education research and development, and from 18th to 26th in business research and development. Scientists marched on Parliament Hill in 2012 and 2013 to protest cuts to research that could put the environment at risk and what they saw as the muzzling of federal researchers. “I come from a place where I understand the challenges [for scientists],” she says. “I’m able to ask, how do we do this better for you?”

Duncan’s initial task on that front was working on the Liberals’ first budget, which injected an additional $95 million into Canada’s three research funding agencies, $20 million into two additional Canada Excellence Research Chairs in fields related to clean and sustainable energy, and $2 billion over the next three years in science-related infrastructure at post-secondary institutions (see “An Historic Investment in Canadian Science and Innovation”).

Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation, hails the $95 million as “the first major investment of unrestricted money in a decade,” which allows granting councils to decide where to make investments rather than tying research funds to government priorities in job creation or to industry partners. “We’re delighted with the focus on the science agenda and the fact that for the first time we have a full cabinet minister responsible solely for looking at science and science funding.”

Next on Duncan’s agenda was establishing the terms of the chief science officer, which fills the void of the national science advisor role scrapped by the Conservative government in 2008. She says the broad terms of the position will be to provide scientific advice to MPs, engage and listen to the scientific community, be an ambassador and champion of science, make sure federally funded scientists can speak freely “now and in the future,” and ensure that scientific evidence informs decision-making. It’s all about making federally funded science open and available to Canadians, she says.

Indeed, the Trudeau government considers science so important that it has given two ministers responsibility for the subject – Duncan and Navdeep Singh Bains, who is minister of innovation, science and economic development. While Bains’s ministry will harness science to drive innovation, Duncan says her ministry will focus on boosting discovery science, to make sure that basic research is available to be harnessed.

To that aim, Duncan has struck an independent panel of nine experts to review federal funding of fundamental science. The panel is notable for its heavy hitters – two former U of T presidents in Robert Birgeneau and David Naylor, and Nobel Prize physicist Art McDonald – and for its gender balance and representation of younger researchers. Duncan is particularly concerned about getting support to young researchers so they can get “up and running” earlier in their careers. And she would like to see “the pendulum swing back to discovery” from the past decade’s focus on applied science. Duncan says the four women on the panel – including two university vice-presidents of research and a university president – will help “change the conversation,” and perhaps address the rather dismal statistics that Duncan cited in her responses to the Standing Committee on the Status of Women in 2015. While women now make up 52 per cent of university students in Canada, they don’t progress through the professorial ranks at nearly the same rate as men. According to the latest Statistics Canada figures, there were roughly an equal number of male and female assistant professors but nearly twice as many men at the associate professor level and more than triple the number of men at the rank of full professor.

Duncan has promised to bring change on that front but can’t announce anything formal yet. In the meantime, she champions bright young female academics when she can, such as Sandhya and Swapna Mylabathula. The identical twin sisters, both doing doctorates in concussion research at U of T and huge hockey fans, enjoyed a boost of support from Duncan before she was even minister of science. Together they worked on a policy that Duncan put forward in a private member’s bill in 2015. It called for a national strategy on concussions and a centre of excellence for concussion research. The bill received its first reading in the House and the two sisters look forward to how their work might move concussion policy forward when parliament reconvenes after the summer. Duncan, ever the teacher and coach, helped the young researchers prepare for their first presentation – for a national conference on concussions.

Now both are excited to see where Duncan takes science in Canada. “It’s inspiring to have a minister of science who is a woman,” says Swapna. “She’s a role model for us – and for all women in science.”

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